A Russian Soyuz spacecraft sprung free from the International Space Station tonight as a Russian cosmonaut and astronauts from the U.S. and Japan set off on the first leg of a three-and-a-half hour trip back to Earth.
Hooks and latches between the Soyuz spacecraft and a station docking port opened just before 6 p.m. EST. Then springs pushed the craft free from the outpost. Soyuz commander Sergei Volkov was in the center seat of the spacecraft, flanked to the right by American astronaut Mike Fossum and to the left by Satoshi Furukawa of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The Soyuz and the station were flying 252 miles above the border of China and Mongolia at the time. The departure came on the 167th day in space for the three crewmates; the 165th aboard the station. They launched in the same Soyuz at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on June 8.
Volkov put the Soyuz through a series of small maneuvers after flying the Soyuz 50 meters from the station. The maneuvers were part of a test of a new digital auto-pilot system being developed by the Russian Federal Space Agency.
The departure marked the beginning of the 30th expedition aboard the station. U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank took command of the station from Fossum on Sunday. Burbank and two cosmonauts -- Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov -- remain aboard the outpost. Three additional crewmates will join them in late December.
Volkov, Fossum and Furukawa will begin their atmospheric reentry at 8:32 p.m. Landing on the snow-swept steppes of north-central Kazakhstan is scheduled at 9:25 p.m. The weather at the landing site 35 miles northeast of Arkalyk is bitterly cold -- less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds are expected to be about 15 mph. A half-foot of fresh snow has fallen in the past 24 hours.
You can watch live coverage of the deorbit burn and the landing here in The Flame Trench beginning at 8 p.m. Click the NASA TV box on the right to launch our NASA TV viewer and live coverage.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA TV screen grab. It shows (left to right) Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, U.S. astronaut Mike Fossum and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov at the hatch to their Soyuz spacecraft earlier today.