Soyuz TMA-03M undocks from ISS and returns to Earth

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The Russian Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft, also known by its US designation of 29S, has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:48 AM EDT/4:48 AM GMT Sunday morning, ahead of successfully returning to Earth for a landing in Kazakhstan with three outgoing members of the station’s Expedition 31 crew at 4:14 AM EDT/8:14 AM GMT.

Soyuz TMA-03M background:

Soyuz TMA-03M, which launched on 21 December 2011 and docked to the ISS at the Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1) Nadir port two days later on 23 December, is crewed by Russian cosmonaut and Soyuz commander Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut and science extraordinaire Don Pettit, and ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers, who all served as part of the ISS Expedition 30 and 31 crews.

The crew witnessed many milestone events during their six months in space, most notable of which was without doubt the first rendezvous and berthing of a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the ISS – with Don Pettit taking the esteemed title of “Dragon catcher”.

The crew also saw the arrival of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-3 (ATV-3) spacecraft back in March, marking another major cargo delivery event for the ISS.

(Animation created from 70 hi res ATV-3 docking images acquired by L2 – LINK).

In addition, ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers broke the record for the longest ever spaceflight by a European astronaut during Expedition 30/31, smashing the previous record set by ESA astronaut Frank DeWinne on Expedition 20/21 in 2009.

While all three crewmembers have completed re-entries on a Soyuz before, Don Pettit’s only previous Soyuz re-entry was far from pleasant, as he returned from his Expedition 6 mission in 2003 aboard Soyuz TMA-1 (the first of the TMA series of Soyuzes), which experienced an unusual ballistic re-entry profile, causing a high G-load on the crew and an off-target landing 300km short of the expected landing site.

Coupled with a non-functional antenna, word of the crew’s safe return to Earth was slow to reach Mission Control Center-Moscow (MCC-M) and the NASA officials present, whose nerves were already on edge since Soyuz TMA-1 was the first re-entry and landing of a spacecraft carrying humans since the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia just a few months earlier – which itself necessitated the return of the crew on the Soyuz, who were originally planned to return on the then grounded Shuttle.

The off-target landing and non-functional antenna also meant the Soyuz TMA-1 crew were forced to wait hours for recovery forces to arrive, meaning the crew had to extract themselves from their own spacecraft following touchdown.

Soyuz TMA-03M undocking and landing:

With command of the ISS having been handed off from Expedition 31 commander Oleg Kononenko to the now Expedition 32 commander Gennady Padalka on Friday evening, who himself now goes down in history as the first and only person to command the ISS three times (on three separate flights), the Soyuz TMA-03M crew spent their last day aboard the ISS on Saturday.

Hatch closure between the ISS and Soyuz TMA-03M occurred on Saturday night at 9:40 PM EDT/Sunday morning at 1:40 AM GMT, following which the crew worked their usual leak check procedures, followed by suiting up in their Sokol launch and entry suits and transferring into the Soyuz Descent Module (SA), following which the hatch between the SA and the Orbital Module (BO) was closed.

With the crew strapped into the SA, Soyuz TMA-03M undocking from MRM-1 occurred at 12:48 AM EST/4:48 AM GMT Sunday morning, signalling the formal beginning of Expedition 32. Following a test of a Soyuz digital autopilot system, where the attitude of Soyuz TMA-03M was adjusted, a final separation burn occurred to place the Soyuz on a trajectory away from the ISS.

Following a two-and-a-half hour free-flight, the Soyuz TMA-03M de-orbit burn was conducted at 3:19 AM EDT/7:19 AM GMT, followed by tri-module separation and re-entry.

Landing in Kazakhstan was on schedule at 4:14 AM EDT/8:14 AM GMT, following by the crew being extracted from the Soyuz and flown by Russian MI-8 helicopters to a nearby airfield, whereupon Oleg Kononenko will board an aircraft bound for Star City, near Moscow, whereas Don Pettit – who apparently fainted for a short while after egress – and Andre Kuipers will board a NASA aircraft for a “direct return” to Houston, Texas.

Expedition 32 outlook:

Expedition 32  – consisting of Russian commander Gennady Padalka, joined by fellow Russian Sergey Revin, and American Joe Acaba – is shaping up to be an extremely busy period aboard the ISS, with a large number of Visiting Vehicle (VV) activities and Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs) aboard the ISS, in addition to the usual heavy schedule of scientific research.

The first event in the sequence will be the 15 July launch and 17 July docking of the Soyuz TMA-05M/31S spacecraft, carrying three additional members of Expedition 32 – Russian Yuri Malenchenko, American Suni Williams, and Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide.

Just a few days later, on 21 July, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle-3 (HTV-3) spacecraft will launch to the ISS, for a rendezvous and berthing to the ISS – using much the same procedure as the SpaceX Dragon – on 27 July.

The HTV-3 mission will kick off an intense period of internal cargo transfers, and external robotics as the HTV-3 Exposed Pallet (EP) is transferred to the Japanese Exposed Facility (JEF), whereupon the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System (JEM RMS) will remove the Multi-mission Consolidated Equipment (MCE) payload from the EP and install it onto the JEF.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator (SPDM) “Dextre” will remove the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) testbed from the EP and install it onto the ExPrESS Logistics Carrier-3 (ELC-3). The empty EP will then be transferred back to HTV-3.

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Additionally, on 22 July, the Progress M-15M/47P spacecraft will undock from the Docking Compartment-1 (DC-1) module, and  two days later on 24 July, perform a re-docking to the ISS to test a new Kurs-NA antenna. Progress M-15M will undock for the final time on 30 July, followed on 1 August by the launch of Progress M-16M/48P, which will dock to the ISS just a few hours after launch to test a new fast-rendezvous profile.

In additional to that, Russian EVA-31 by Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malenchenko is planned for 16 August, followed on 30 August by US EVA-18 by Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide, which will include the Removal & Replacement (R&R) of the failing Main Bus Switching Unit-1 (MBSU-1), and the installation of a thermal cover onto Pressurised Mating Adapter-2 (PMA-2).

Now no longer needed for Space Shuttle dockings, the thermal cover will protect PMA-2 for the next few years until it is used again for commercial crew vehicle dockings later this decade – which will be achieved via the use of an Androgynous Peripheral Attachment System (APAS – PMA-2’s current docking mechanism) to NASA Docking System (NDS – the future commercial crew vehicle docking system) adaptor, which will be delivered to the ISS via a SpaceX Dragon Trunk in a few years’ time.

The extensive period of activity will then continue with the 6 September departure of the HTV-3, followed on 17 September by the departure of Soyuz TMA-04M/30S, marking the end of Expedition 32, followed on 23 September by the departure of Europe’s ATV-3 spacecraft.

The first Dragon flight under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – known as SpX-1 – is then scheduled for launch on 5 October, for a rendezvous and berthing to the ISS on 7 October.

(Images: NASA, NASA TV, and L2’s ISS and Russian Sections)

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