On Thursday afternoon, three astronauts on board the International Space Station will load into a Russian Soyuz capsule and embark on the more than three-hour journey back home to Earth — just a week after another crew of three joined them on the ISS. The trio is set to land in the Kazakhstan desert after 1AM ET on Friday, April 17th, where a smaller-than-usual welcoming committee will be on hand to greet them.
The returning astronauts include NASA’s Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan as well as Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. Morgan has been on the ISS for up to 272 days, while Meir and Skripochka have been on board for 205. Meir made history last year when she performed the first all-female spacewalk with her friend and fellow astronaut Christina Koch. The pair went on to do two more all-female spacewalks together while they were both on the station.
Since the three astronauts are returning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, extra precautions are being taken when they arrive back on Earth. Typically, a very large crowd of people greets the returning astronauts in Kazakhstan and helps them out of their capsule. A smaller team than usual will meet the crew this time, according to NASA. The crew will still go through a routine medical check from NASA flight doctors once they’re removed from the Soyuz capsule. And they’ll continue to be evaluated by medical personnel for weeks and months afterward, though NASA is going to be extra careful about follow-up exams.
“NASA will closely adhere to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus as Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir return to Earth and begin their post-flight medical testing and re-adaptation period,” a NASA spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge. “This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay home and limiting contact with the crew members.”
Once the crew lands, Morgan and Meir will board a NASA plane bound for Houston, which is routine for NASA astronauts who land in Kazakhstan. Russia recently closed its borders to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, but NASA says it has worked with Russia’s space organization, Roscosmos, as well as the US embassies in Russia and Kazakhstan to make sure that the astronauts and NASA launch crew can get back to the US. “Backup plans are in place to ensure our personnel are supported as conditions change,” a NASA spokesperson said. “We appreciate all the support of our international partners to ensure we can safely continue our mission.”
Morgan, Meir, and Skripochka will close the hatch of their Soyuz around 6:30PM ET. They’ll detach from the station at 9:53PM ET and spend the next few hours distancing themselves from the orbiting lab. Once it’s far enough away, the Soyuz will fire its engines at around 12:22AM ET to take the vehicle out of orbit and begin the descent through Earth’s atmosphere. About an hour later, at 1:17AM ET, the Soyuz is slated to land in Kazakhstan with the aid of its parachutes.
NASA plans to provide live coverage throughout the evening, starting at 4:55PM ET when Skripochka hands over command of the ISS to NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. Check back throughout the night to watch the crew come home.