We knew the day would come, Luca’s last day in orbit. Everything is go for the return of the three astronauts that stayed 166 days in orbit since the end of May. We have spent 166 days working around the clock in the Columbus Control Centre supporting Luca’s mission, he experienced more than 2600 nights and days and has flown more than 100 million kilometres. In addition Luca spent more than 100 hours working on ESA scientific experiments.
The mission was a great success and it goes without saying that this is because of the great teams on ground and our great Luke Skywalker. We had a couple of difficulties during the mission but this is considered normal and all teams and astronauts are trained and prepared to deal with these situations.
A return is almost like the day of the launch, a lot of activities happen prior to the Soyuz spacecraft leaving. The astronauts have prepared their luggage and have loaded the space vehicle with cargo. The Soyuz can only carry a small amount of cargo as the only a small capsule returns to Earth and it will hold three astronauts as well. Luca will have less baggage than you are allowed to carry on a normal airplane flight, not even 2 kilograms of personal items that he has carefully hand-picked himself.
Luca’s return will begin with the undocking of the Soyuz spacecraft at 23:26 GMT on Sunday and 45 minutes later the spacecraft will be already several kilometres away from the International Space Station. Then everything will happen pretty fast.
The so-called deorbit burn will occur at 1:55 GMT on Monday morning. This will slow the spacecraft down in order to reenter the atmosphere. The separation of the capsules will occur at 2:23 GMT at an altitude of about 140 km above earth. From now on the capsule will fall down to Earth like a big rock and will enter the atmosphere three minutes later at an altitude of about 100 km. Another six minutes later at an altitude of 32 km the astronauts will experience the maximum g-load during their return. At 2:35 GMT and an altitude of 10 kilometres the astronauts will release parachutes to prepare for landing.
The landing the occurs at 2:49 GMT in the deserts of Kazakhstan where a crew will be waiting in helicopters.
After landing Luca and his crewmates will be lifted from their small capsule and they will breathe their first breath of fresh air from planet Earth in over five months.
We will closely follow each of these activities in the Columbus Control Centre and sign-off with the last words : “Mission accomplished!”.