Monday, May 23, 2011

Soyuz crew begins drop from orbit

Two astronauts and a cosmonaut have begun their drop from orbit, putting them on course for a 10:26 p.m. EDT touchdown in south-central Kazakhstan.

Russian Dmitry Kondratyev, Italian Paolo Nespoli and American Cady Coleman departed the International Space Station at 5:35 p.m. and took part in taking a historic portrait of the outpost joined with shuttle Endeavour and three other vehicles.

At 9:36 p.m., flying over the southern Atlantic Ocean, thrusters began a four-minute, 16-second firing to brake the speed of their Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft and begin the final leg of their trip back to Earth.

The crew launched to the station Dec. 15, 2010, from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome and spent 159 days in space -- more than five months.

"It was an extremely busy increment," said NASA TV commentator Rob Navias.

Their tenure included visits by four different cargo spacecraft from three nations and two space shuttles, most recently Endeavour.

Search and rescue planes and helicopters have deployed to the landing site of Dzhezkazgan, where the weather is reportedly sunny and warm.

Around 10 p.m., before beginning a fiery re-entry through the atmosphere, two modules will split away (left) from the center descent module in which the crew members are seated so that its ablative heat shield can point down. The shield is heats up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

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