Spacecraft Blazes Like a Meteor While Bringing Three Astronauts Home to Earth

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Nov. 24 2012 8:00 AM

Coming Home in a Blaze of Glory

On Monday night, Nov. 19, 2012, at 00:56 UTC (7:56 p.m. Eastern Standard Time), a Russian Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft carrying three members of the International Space Station’s Expedition 33 crew set down safely in remote Kazakhstan.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

A few minutes before it landed, though, it looked like this:

Soyuz spacecraft re-etering Earth's atmosphere
Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts burns like a meteor as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. Click to bolidenate.

Image credit: NASA.

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Yikes. But that’s normal! After the Soyuz decoupled from the space station, it burned its rockets to put it on a path that plunged it into our atmosphere, ramming through the air to slow down. The pressure in front of the plummeting spacecraft compressed the air, and when you compress air it heats up—try using a bicycle pump rapidly and then put your hand on the canister to get visceral proof of that.

Since the spacecraft was moving significantly faster than you can pump a pump, the air got compressed savagely and heated up so much that it glowed. A lot of that heat was transferred to the spacecraft, which had a special surface to withstand it. The material ablated off, trailing bits and blobs of glowing matter as the spacecraft slowed from orbital speeds of several thousand kilometers per hour down to just a few hundred. At that point, parachutes were deployed, and the craft fell the rest of the way to ground, where it impacted more-or-less gently.

Not long after landing, the ground crew found it and set up a temporary camp:

The Soyuz spacecraft safely on the ground, surrounded by the pickup crew.
The Soyuz spacecraft safely on the ground, surrounded by the pickup crew. Click to embiggen.

Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

I love this picture. The glow is from a tall lamp, and you can see the capsule just to the upper right of it. The ground crew surrounds the returning astronauts, their shadows pointing radially away from the light. It’s eerie, but somehow welcoming.

Speaking of which: Welcome home to Commander Sunita Williams (NASA), and Flight Engineers Akihiko Hoshide (JAXA,  the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), and Yuri Malenchenko (ROSCOSMOS, Russian Federal Space Agency)! They return to Earth after more than 120 days in space aboard the ISS. Hopefully Commander Williams was able to find some turkey and accoutrements in Russia.