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Space capsule returns to Earth

The Foton M3 research capsule has safely returned to Earth after two weeks of tests under weightless conditions. It was fired into orbit from Kazakhstan with a live cargo of mice, lizards, snails and cockroaches.

They have been tested to see how they reacted to the space environment.

Not all of the experiments have been successful.

Attached to the Foton M3 capsule was the Fotino satellite.  It was meant to stretch away from the mother ship while staying connected by a 30 kilometre tether.

It would then use the bigger capsule to position itself into the Earth's orbit.  The idea was that the thread would then be cut, allowing the “space mail” to re-enter the atmosphere.  It was part of a test aimed at sending parcels from space back to Earth. 

However, during the experiment the tether failed to deploy far enough. And now the parcel from space is orbiting the Earth, and no one knows when or where it will land.

Yet, the scientist behind the project refuses to call it a failure.

“The way we in the YES-2 Team feel is that it's gone reasonably well, YES-2 is a student experiment and it's testing a new concept for a space mission for the first time,” Roger Walker.

Despite the setback, the technology retains its potential.

“A real operational system could have benefits for returning microgravity samples from space stations for instance at a lower cost than using conventional means such as retro rockets,” adds Roger Walker.

The YES-2 experiment may have been the most spectacular of all planned on the Foton M3, but there were more than forty others.

Biologists have sent a Noah's Ark of life forms, from micro-organisms to gerbils, to see if they can survive in weightlessness, and to examine how space radiation affects them.

These tilapias were fertilised before being sent aboard the Foton M3, where their eggs have hatched. When they return to Earth their offspring will be compared with a control group.

And scientists may be able to understand how life could spread between planets.

Some rocks covered with micro-organisms have been placed on the outside of the capsule, to see if they can survive during re-entry into the atmosphere.

The scientists have been able to directly monitor some of the experiments during the mission itself.

“I can say already now having the first feedback from the experiments, and having the first feedback from the scientists, that the Foton M3 mission is a success,” says Josef Winter from the European Space Agency.

But, for other experiments, it may be months before conclusive results are in.

The Foton M3 has landed safely but the overall success of the mission will depend on the data these specialists will be analysing in the coming weeks.