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