A photo provided by Nasa shows the astronauts gesture inside the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. AP
Four astronauts strapped inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule back to earth, after a busy six months on the International Space Station, safely in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast on Monday.
Their capsule streaked through the late night sky like a dazzling meteor before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Recovery boats quickly moved in with spotlights.
The Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endeavour, parachuted into the sea as planned just after 10:30pm EST on Monday (0330 GMT Tuesday), following a fiery re-entry descent through Earth's atmosphere carried live by a NASA webcast.
It landed in the Gulf of Mexico at 10:33 pm US Eastern Time (0333 GMT Tuesday), marking the end of the "Crew-2" mission.
Astronauts in the SpaceX Dragon capsule prepare for undocking from the International Space Station. AP
A boat will retrieve the capsule, and the astronauts on board will be brought back to land via helicopter.
Live thermal video imaging captured a glimpse of the capsule streaking like a meteor through the night sky over the Gulf minutes before splashdown.
Applause was heard from the flight control center as the four main parachutes inflated above the capsule as it drifted down toward the Gulf surface, slowing its speed to about 15 miles per hour (24 kph) before dropping gently into the calm sea.
Endeavour then looped around the ISS for around an hour-and-a-half to take photographs, the first such mission since a Russian Soyuz spaceship performed a similar maneuver in 2018.
Their homecoming — coming just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station — paved the way for SpaceX's launch of their four replacements as early as Wednesday night.
A view of the SpaceX Dragon capsule dubbed "Endeavour" as it returns to earth on Monday. AFP
The newcomers were scheduled to launch first, but NASA switched the order because of bad weather and an astronaut's undisclosed medical condition. The welcoming duties will now fall to the lone American and two Russians left behind at the space station.
Before Monday afternoon’s undocking, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who’s waiting to launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted it was a shame the two crews wouldn’t overlap at the space station but "we trust you’ll leave everything nice and tidy.” His will be SpaceX's fourth crew flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and France's Thomas Pesquet should have been back Monday morning, but high wind in the recovery zone delayed their return.
"One more night with this magical view. Who could complain? I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted Sunday alongside a brief video showing the space station illuminated against the blackness of space and the twinkling city lights on the nighttime side of Earth.
From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei -- midway through a one-year flight -- bid farewell to each of his departing friends, telling McArthur "I’ll miss hearing your laughter in adjacent modules.”
This screen grab shows the SpaceX Dragon capsule before splashing down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. AFP
Before leaving the neighborhood, the four took a spin around the space station, taking pictures. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA's shuttles used to do it all the time before their retirement a decade ago. The last Russian capsule fly-around was three years ago.
It wasn't the most comfortable ride back. The toilet in their capsule was broken, and so the astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour trip home. They shrugged it off late last week as just one more challenge in their mission.
The first issue arose shortly after their April liftoff; Mission Control warned a piece of space junk was threatening to collide with their capsule. It turned out to be a false alarm. Then in July, thrusters on a newly arrived Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into a spin. The four astronauts took shelter in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to make a hasty departure if necessary.
Among the upbeat milestones: four spacewalks to enhance the station's solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers.
The SpaceX-built launch vehicle, consisting of a Crew Dragon capsule and a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, was launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at about 9pm (0200 GMT Thursday).
The mission, called Crew-2, involves US astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)'s Akihiko Hoshide, and the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Thomas Pesquet.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three US NASA astronauts and a German astronaut from the European Space Agency undocked from the ISS shortly after 1 am EDT (0500 GMT) to embark on a return flight expected to last less than 24 hours.
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