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Science & Exploration

The return home

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ESA / Science & Exploration / Human and Robotic Exploration / Proxima

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Russian commander Oleg Novitsky and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to their Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft and lifeboat at the end of their mission on the International Space Station. The ride home was even shorter than the ride up: less than four hours from undocking to landing in the steppe of Kazakhstan. 

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen back on Earth
ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen back on Earth

Shortly after undocking, Soyuz separates into three parts. The orbital and service modules burn up on reentry in the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere. The descent module turns to position its heatshield towards the direction of reentry, so that it can handle the 1600°C created by the friction with our atmosphere.

Reentry starts at an altitude of about 120 km, when their cruising speed of 28 800 km/h is reduced dramatically and the crew are pushed back into their seats with a force of 4–5 g. This is equivalent to four to five times their own body weight.

Parachutes deploy to reduce speed even more and the astronauts sit in custom-fitted seats that absorb the shock of impact. At the last moment, retrorockets fire before touchdown to limit the impact to around 5 km/h.

After landing, the crew deploy a communication antenna, so that the rescue teams can pinpoint them, but usually search and rescue teams are already onsite to retrieve the space voyagers.

The spacecraft is cramped and astronauts return to Earth in a weakened state, so pulling the crew out of their capsule one by one can take some time. 

Touchdown
Touchdown

Landing timeline

Soyuz leaves the Station

00:00 separation command

Separation command to begin opening the hooks and latches that hold Soyuz on the Station docking port

+00:03 separation from Station

Hooks opened. Soyuz begins physical separation from the docking compartment at 0.1 m/s

+00:06 separation burn from Station

A 15-second separation burn when the Soyuz is about 20 m from the Station

+02:29 deorbit burn

When Soyuz is about 19 km from the Station, the engines fire for almost five minutes

+02:57 separation of modules

The unoccupied Orbital Module separates from the Descent Module and burns up on reentry

Search and rescue arrive
Search and rescue arrive

+03:00 entry interface

The Soyuz reaches Entry Interface at 122 km altitude

+03:08 parachutes open

 Parachutes are deployed:

  1. Two pilots
  2. Drogue slows the descent from 230 m/s to 80 m/s
  3. Main slows the Soyuz to 7.2 m/s. The Soyuz descends at an angle of 30º to cool, then the main parachute shifts it to a straight vertical descent

+03:22 soft landing engine firing

Six soft-landing engines fire to slow the vehicle’s descent rate to 1.5 m/s just 1 m above the ground

+03:23 touchdown

Soyuz lands on Earth

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