This evening, three astronauts will head home from the International Space Station, including one record-breaking crew member who just spent nearly a year in space. NASA astronaut Christina Koch is on her way back to Earth after setting the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a woman and after completing the first all-female spacewalks in history.
Koch is traveling back with astronaut Luca Parmitano from the European Space Agency and Russian astronaut Aleksandr Skvortsov who have been living on the station since July. Tonight, the trio will climb into a Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the station and then make the three-hour journey home.
Since launching to the station in March of last year, Koch has conducted numerous science experiments aboard the ISS. Those include the study of how fire behaves in microgravity, as well as research into how protein crystals grow in space. Koch herself has also been the focus of experiments, helping NASA learn how the body changes during long stays in space. Koch has spent 328 days in space, just shy of the 340 days NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent on the ISS for his one-year mission. Data from both of their stays has helped NASA research how astronauts’ bodies might change during future long-duration missions to Mars.
But perhaps Koch’s most memorable achievements were the three spacewalks she performed with fellow crew member (and best friend) Jessica Meir, marking the first time two women performed work outside of a spacecraft without any men suited up. Koch had originally been slated to perform the first all-female spacewalk back in March, but she wound up doing the operation with her male colleague due to limitations on space suit sizes. Ultimately, Koch and Meir got the chance to make history together in October and then again this January.
Koch and her colleagues will start the journey home at around 9:30PM ET when they board their Soyuz capsule and close the hatch to the space station. At around 12:50AM ET, they’ll undock from the ISS and drift farther away from the orbiting lab. Once far enough out, the Soyuz will ignite its main engine to take the vehicle out of orbit around 3:18AM ET. Less than an hour later, the Soyuz capsule should touch down in Kazakhstan at 4:12AM ET after making the fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere and deploying its parachutes.
After this crew leaves, the ISS will be down to just three crew members: Meir, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. The trio will stay a trio for the months of February and March until they are joined by another three astronauts in April: NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin. That six-person group won’t remain for very long, as Meir, Morgan, and Skripochka are set to return to Earth in April as well.
NASA plans to provide coverage on its online channel for each major event this evening, so if you happen to be awake, you can watch Koch’s finale to a jam-packed time in space.