Touchdown! Soyuz space capsule lands on Earth
NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers have finally returned to Earth. The crew, having sustained the descent and touched down without issue, are all in good spirits. The Soyuz TMA-03M undocked from the ISS at 4:48 GMT and began its descent towards the Earth’s atmosphere.At 07:47 GMT the spaceship split into three sections. The housing quarters and instrument sections separated from the reentry vehicle which was carrying the crew. The capsule entered the atmosphere at 07:51 GMT and communications with the astronauts were lost for some time as plasma enveloped the vehicle. At about 08:00 GMT, when the reentry vehicle passed the plasma stage, its parachutes deployed, slowing down the fall. The descent successfully ended when the capsule landed in Kazakhstan’s steppe at 08:15 GMT right on the designated spot. The weather at the landing site was clear. The Soyuz TMA-22 spaceship took off from Baikonur cosmodrome on December 21, 2011 and docked with the ISS two days later. The Expedition 31 was supposed to return to Earth in May, but the date was postponed due to a revision of the flight program for 2012. The delay was necessary as the Soyuz TMA-04M’s reentry vehicle was damaged. The vehicle was ultimately replaced with an identical model.During their mission on the ISS, cosmonauts unloaded four cargo ships; three unmanned Russian Progress cargo spacecrafts and an American Dragon private cargo ship. The expedition conducted 30 scientific experiments and one spacewalk.Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergey Revin and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba will continue their mission aboard the ISS until the next expedition arrives.The next expedition to the ISS is set for July 15 when the Soyuz TMA-04 spaceship blasts off from Baikonur.Because of the termination of the American Space Shuttle program, Russian Soyuz spacecrafts remain the only means of delivering people to the ISS until at least 2016.