A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts home from the International Space Station after almost 200 days in orbit splashed down on Earth on Tuesday morning.
The Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour landed in the Gulf of Mexico just after 7.30am Gulf Standard Time on Tuesday after an eight-hour journey from the orbital laboratory, completing a 199-day research mission in space.
Thermal imaging cameras on board a Nasa aircraft captured the capsule streaking through the night sky over the Gulf minutes before splashdown.
Friction from the Earth's atmosphere slowed the capsule and sent temperatures around it soaring to more than 1,900°C during reentry. The spacecraft was able to withstand the dizzying temperatures thanks to its heat shield.
Kathy Leuders, head of space operations at Nasa, said the return flight "looked spotless" even though one of the capsule's four large parachutes was slow to unfurl.
Nasa had planned to bring the SpaceX Crew-2 mission team back a day earlier, but delayed the process of detaching the spacecraft from the ISS owing to high winds in the landing zone. The US space agency live-streamed the astronauts’ return on its YouTube channel.
Applause was heard from the flight control centre as the four main parachutes opened above the capsule as it drifted down toward the ocean, slowing its speed to about 24 kph before dropping gently into the calm sea.
"It's great to be back," one of the astronauts radioed in reply.
France’s Thomas Pesquet, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and Americans Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur flew to the ISS on April 24 this year.
Owing to several delays, they returned to Earth before the next four-person mission, Crew-3, will fly to the ISS.
Crew-3 has also been delayed several times by bad weather and an undisclosed medical problem.
Good news for crew number two
The journey home lasted eight hours, less than half as long as the trip there.
This was good news for the astronauts, who were not able to use the on-board toilet because of a possible urine leak and had to rely on nappies until they landed.
“Our intent is to not use the system at all for the return leg home because of what we’ve seen with the fluids we are talking about,” Nasa’s commercial crew programme manager Steve Stich said ahead of the flight.
“We have other means to allow the crew to perform the functions they need.”
The all-civilian crew of the privately funded Inspiration4 mission reported problems with the spacecraft’s toilet during their mission this year, but SpaceX redesigned the system before the Crew-3 flight.
SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules were certified to spend up to 210 days in orbit.