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Earth offers astronauts a glorious homecoming

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There are few feelings more gratifying than returning home after a long journey. For most of us, this means a plane trip or a car ride and then a final struggle with unfamiliar keys on the front door. However, if you're coming home from space, things are a little more ... scenic.

The amazing picture above shows a Soyuz space capsule containing two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut. They're returning to Earth after a six-month stint onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule is seen floating above the clouds of Kazakhstan at around 5am local time. It landed safely in an upright position and the three travelers — the crew of ISS Expedition 42 — were safely retrieved.

And although the picture above looks serene, the spacecraft is probably still moving pretty fast. After the Soyuz capsules hits Earth's Entry Interface (around 400,000 feet up, where the thickening atmosphere begins to create friction) it's moving at a speed of 755 feet per second, or around 500 mph. After four first-stage parachutes are deployed this is slowed to 262 feet per second, and by the time the final, main parachute is used, the Soyuz is moving at a rate of 24 feet per second. To ensure it doesn't hit the ground with a bump, two small engines fire for a second before touchdown, softening the final landing.

The first picture below shows the trio seated in deckchairs and covered in thick blankets to protect against the cold Kazakhstani weather — standard procedure for returning spacefarers.
Expedition 42 was comprised of American astronaut Barry Wilmore, and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova. The ISS is now occupied by a three-person crew until March 27th, when another NASA astronaut and two more Russian cosmonauts will make the trip up.