Three ISS crewmembers make pre-dawn Earth return following ISS departure

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Three crewmembers of the International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 33 crew – comprising American astronaut Suni Williams, Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko – undocked from the ISS on time at 10:26 PM GMT in their Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft, also known by its US designation of 31S. They landed on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 1:56 AM GMT Monday morning, albeit slightly off target.

Soyuz undocking:

Soyuz TMA-05M launched to the ISS back on 15 July, with docking to the Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1) “Rassvet” module occurring two days later on 17 July. Although the crew have had an unusually short four-month (125 day) flight, it has been one that occurred during an extremely busy period on the ISS.

Notable milestones during the short Soyuz TMA-05M flight include the first rendezvous and docking of a Progress supply craft using the new Kurs-NA system, two same day launches and dockings of Progress craft, the completion of the Japanese HTV-3 mission, the completion of the SpaceX Dragon CRS-1 mission, and the undocking of the European ATV-3 vessel.

Additionally, the completion of one Russian spacewalk, the completion of two US spacewalks to replace the faulty Main Bus Switching Unit-1 (MBSU-1), the completion of a US spacewalk to repair an ammonia leak on the P6 Truss, plus the usual high number of scientific investigations also occurred.

With the sprint-like stay of the Soyuz TMA-05M crew aboard the ISS at an end however, command of the ISS was handed off from Suni Williams to newly arrived astronaut Kevin Ford on Saturday, followed on Sunday evening by hatch closure between MRM-1 and Soyuz TMA-05M, at 7:10 PM GMT, following which leak checking and depressurisation of the Soyuz-ISS vestibule occurred.

The Soyuz TMA-05M crew then donned their Sokol launch & entry suits, closed the hatch between the Orbital Module (BO) and Descent Module (SA), and strapped themselves into their Kazbek couches inside the SA. Undocking from MRM-1 then occurred at 10:26 PM GMT, followed by two separations burns to depart the vicinity of the ISS.

Following approximately three and a half hours of free flight, Soyuz TMA-05M made its de-orbit burn at 12:58 AM GMT on Monday (19 November) morning, followed by a landing North East of the town of Arkalyk on the Steppe of Kazakhstan at 1:56 AM GMT.

However, due to a five second mistiming with chute deploy, the landing was around 35 km off target.

Conditions at the landing site are said to be bitterly cold, with heavy snow having occurred over the past 24 hours. The landing will also occur in darkness, marking the first Soyuz night landing since Soyuz TMA-7 in 2006.

Once the crew are extracted from the SA by Russian recovery forces, they will be flown by MI-8 helicopters to a nearby airfield, where the crew will part ways, with Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide boarding a NASA Gulfstream III aircraft to be flown back to Ellington Field in Houston, Texas – via two refuelling stops in Glasgow, Scotland, and Goose Bay, Canada. Yuri Malenchenko will meanwhile be flown back to Star City, outside Moscow.

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Expedition 34:

Immediately following the undocking of Soyuz TMA-05M, Expedition 33 ended and Expedition 34 began on the ISS, with NASA astronaut Kevin Ford in command, and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Evgeny Tarelkin as Flight Engineers.

The three-man Expedition 34 will continue their research objectives alone until they are joined on 21 December by the crew of Soyuz TMA-07M, consisting of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, who will launch to the ISS two days prior on 19 December.

Looking ahead into 2013, Expedition 34 will see the first satellite refuelling demonstration occur in January, via the Robotic Refuelling Mission (RRM) payload – operations for which were originally planned for this past week, but were deferred to January due to concerns with damage to the Mobile Transporter (MT).

On February 11, the Progress M-16M spacecraft will undock from the ISS, followed on February 12 by the same day launch and docking of the Progress M-18M vessel.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-2 mission is then tentatively scheduled for 1 March, with a berthing to the ISS on 3 March, followed on 15 March by the undocking of Soyuz TMA-06M, which will conclude the Expedition 34 mission.

(Images via L2 and NASA).

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