Wrapping up their 115-day stay in space, the Expedition 49 trio will depart from the International Space Station tonight to land on the steppe of Kazakhstan southeast of Dzhezkazgan. The crew has already packed up and is ready for the upcoming three-and-a-half hour return flight to Earth.
The trio consisting of NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi, will return home aboard the same spacecraft that transported them to the orbital outpost on July 9, 2016 - Soyuz MS-01. It is the first vehicle of the upgraded Soyuz MS series, a modified version of Russia’s flagship Soyuz TMA crewed vehicle. The new MS variant includes an improved position control engine and a GLONASS/GPS system. The spacecraft also has a new approach and docking system, a new computer, and more power-efficient solar panels.
During this week, the crew conducted last inspections of the Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft, checking all the systems and performing leak checks to make sure that everything is buttoned up for the departure. They also carried out a series of training sessions, testing descent maneuvers that will be repeated in-flight.
On Friday, Ivanishin handed command of ISS over to NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough in a traditional Change of Command ceremony that took place at 3:37 p.m. EDT (19:37 GMT). Kimbrough will officially begin his Expedition 50 leadership Soyuz MS-01 undocks from the Space Station.
Rubins and her crewmates are scheduled to enter the Soyuz spacecraft at 5:15 p.m. EDT (21:15 GMT) on Saturday, Oct. 29, bidding farewell to Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko that will stay in space until February 2017. The spacecraft’s hatch will immediately close starting a three-hour long sequence of leak and pressure checks needed to prepare the vehicle and its crew for leaving the ISS.
Wearing their Sokol suits and buckled up securely in seats inside the spacecraft’s Entry Module, the crew will undock from the Station’s Rassvet Module at 8:35 p.m. EDT (0:35 GMT on Oct. 30). Shortly after detachment, Soyuz will conduct two separation burns within a six-minute time span. These two burns will be required in order to perform a roll maneuver and set up the nominal departure path.
After a two-hour long fly-around of Earth, during which the spacecraft will complete one and a half orbit of our planet, Ivanishin as the mission commander, will “hit the brakes” of Soyuz, starting a deorbit burn of its engine at 11:06 p.m. EDT (3:06 GMT on Oct. 30). This burn, lasting approximately four minutes and 37 seconds, is needed to set a re-entry trajectory towards landing in the designated area.
Three Soyuz modules will separate from each other at about 11:33 EDT (3:33 GMT on Oct. 30) at an altitude of about 87 miles (140 kilometers). The Entry Module carrying the crew will start another braking maneuvers, commencing a controlled descent, while Orbital and Service Modules are slated to be burned out in the atmosphere.
The atmospheric re-entry of the crew will start at 11:36 EDT (3:33 GMT on Oct. 30) at an altitude of approximately 62 miles (100 kilometers) - the so-called “Karman line”, the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space. Soyuz will open its parachutes at an altitude of 6.7 miles (10.8 kilometers) at 11:44 EDT (3:44 GMT on Oct. 30) and is expected to land some 15 minutes later, at about midnight EDT (3:59 GMT on Oct. 30) in a remote area in the Kazakh steppe.
To secure the landing and to assist the crew disembarking from the Soyuz spacecraft on the ground, Russia has already deployed military aircraft to four airfields around the landing area. The pilots will locate the space capsule, conduct a medical examination of the cosmonauts and evacuate them from the landing site together with the space capsule. The Russian ITAR-TASS press agency reports that the search and rescue team comprises of around 200 military servicemen, fourteen Mi-8 helicopters, Antonov An-12 and An-26 aircraft and 20 other planes including four search-and-evacuate amphibious aircraft.
Afterward, the crew will be transported to the city of Karaganda in Kazakhstan for a traditional welcome home ceremony. Ivanishin will then return to Star City near Moscow while Rubins and Onishi are expected to board a plane to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The landing will end the crew’s four-month stay in space during which they conducted hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science aboard the orbital laboratory. Moreover, Rubins performed two spacewalks: on Aug. 19 and Sept. 1, and became the first person to sequence DNA in space.
“This is truly an experiment in all senses of the word. We did not know if it was going to work the first time we did sequencing in space,” she said earlier this month.
The Space Station crew will be downsized to three until Nov. 17 when the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The mission will deliver a trio of Expedition 50 crew members comprising of: NASA’s Peggy A. Whitson, Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet.