Soyuz TMA-04M crew return to Earth following four-month mission to ISS

by Pete Harding

The Russian Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft, also known by its US designation of 30S, undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) early Monday night ahead of a successful return to Earth with a landing in the Kazakh Steppe a few hours later. The landing brought to an end the four-month voyage of Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba.

Soyuz TMA-04M background:

Soyuz TMA-04M was launched to the ISS back on 15 May this year, and following a two-day free flight docked to the ISS at the Mini Research Module-2 (MRM-2) port on 17 May, delivering Padalka, Revin and Acaba to the station to serve as members of the Expedition 31 and 32 crews.

The three crewmembers experienced an extremely busy and memorable time aboard the ISS during their two increments, with the first ISS visit by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the Japanese HTV-3 mission, the Russian Progress M-15M Kurs-NA tests, the Russian Progress M-16M fast rendezvous, Russian EVA-31, and US EVAs 18 and 19 all occurring during the jam-packed flight.

The duration of the Soyuz TMA-04M crewmembers’ busy stay aboard the ISS was also unusually short, at only four months instead of the usual six, due to a delayed launch resulting from a problem with the original Soyuz TMA-04M Descent Module being over-pressurised during preflight processing.

With Expedition 32 – which began on 1 July with the undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-03M/29S – having being led by the now departing Gennady Padalka, command of the ISS was handed over to NASA’s Suni Williams yesterday by Padalka.

Expedition 33, under the command of Williams, will begin upon Soyuz TMA-04M’s undocking from the ISS.

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Soyuz TMA-04M undocking and landing:

In preparation for Monday night’s undocking and landing, hatch closure between the ISS (at the MRM-2 Zenith port) and Soyuz TMA-04M occurred at 8:12 PM GMT September 16, following which standard leak-checking will occur, followed by the Soyuz TMA-04M crew suiting up in their Sokol launch and entry suits, transferring to Descent Module (SA) and closing the hatch to the Orbital Module (BO).

Soyuz TMA-04M undocking from the MRM-2 Zenith port was on schedule at 11:09 PM GMT September 16, followed by the usual separation and departure burns, prior to a few final laps of the planet for the Soyuz TMA-04M crew, prior to the de-orbit burn being conducted at 1:56 AM GMT September 17.

Re-entry then followed, with parachute deploy then occurring prior to touchdown on the Steppe of Kazakhstan at 2:53 AM GMT. Communications were lost for a large part of the entry, although the crew did manage to communicate with ground crews.

This was the fourth Soyuz re-entry and landing for Gennady Padalka, and the first for Sergei Revin and Joe Acaba, although Acaba has previously completed a re-entry aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-119 mission in March 2009.

Upcoming ISS flight events:

Following the beginning of the three-crew Expedition 33 upon Soyuz TMA-04M’s undocking, the next event aboard the ISS will be the undocking of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle-3 (ATV-3) on 25 September, with its re-entry coming two days later on 27 September.

Also scheduled for the 27 September is the first ever CubeSat deployment from the ISS, using the Japanese Experiment Module-Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD) hardware.

A major event to occur during the Expedition 33 3-crew stage is the SpaceX Dragon CRS-1 mission, which had been scheduled for launch on 8 October, but L2 info now shows may be re-aligned due to concerns there is not enough margin on the range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).

The next Soyuz launch – Soyuz TMA-06M/32S – which will bump the ISS back up to six crewmembers, has been delayed from 15 October to 23 October, due to an apparent failure of some on-board equipment inside Soyuz TMA-06M. For a 23 October launch, docking to the ISS at the MRM-2 Zenith port would come on 25 October.

The next flight event would then be the 31 October unberthing, re-entry and splashdown of Dagon CRS-1, and on the same day the launch and fast-rendezvous and docking of the Russian Progress M-17M spacecraft. Expedition 33 would then end on 12 November, with the undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-05M/31S.

(Images via L2 and NASA).

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