Astronauts leave ISS, begin return to Earth on SpaceX craft | Space News

Four astronauts spent more than 160 days in space and their Crew Dragon spacecraft is expected to return to Earth on Sunday.

Four astronauts left the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX ship after more than 160 days in space, culminating in a landing off the coast of Florida.

The Crew Dragon capsule was undocked from the ISS at 8.35 p.m. on Saturday (Sunday, 12:35 a.m. GMT).

Since the flight back to Earth is expected to take six and a half hours, the crew should splash around in the dark of night in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Florida early Sunday.

“Dragon separation confirmed visually,” said a NASA commentator after two sets of six hooks that tied the capsule to the ISS were withdrawn.

The capsule then fired a series of short bursts of its engines to gently move away from the ISS.

NASA’s livestream footage showed the Crew Dragon capsule moving into the dark as it began its journey back to Earth. The rear motors glowed in small flashes.

Seven astronauts remained on the ISS, including a new crew of four who arrived in another SpaceX vehicle last week.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” said Michael Hopkins, one of the departing US astronauts, as the capsule took off. “See you again on earth.”

“Good moonlight”

NASA and SpaceX have alternative splash down sites ready, except Panama City, if required.

“We practiced rescuing the crews day and night,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, shortly before the capsule took off.

“The ships have a lot of light,” aided by “good moonlight,” he said, adding that the calm sea weather conditions were excellent.

SpaceX boats are expected to reach the capsule around 10 minutes after hosing down.

International Space Station crew members greet crew members of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft after docking an opening hatch on April 24th [NASA via AFP]Astronauts Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi from Japan went into space last November as a crew on the first fully functional mission to the ISS aboard a vehicle from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has become NASA’s preferred commercial transport partner .

Previously, two American astronauts made a test mission to the ISS in May and stayed for two months.

This was the first launch of the ISS from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. In contrast to NASA, it was also the first crewed mission carried out by a private company.

Until now, US astronauts had made trips to the ISS aboard Russian spaceships since the end of the space shuttle program.