Living in space has got to be awesome, but there's still nothing quite like coming back home. This is probably how three astronauts departing the International Space Station (ISS) are feeling today as they finally embark on their voyage back to Earth, an entire month later than anticipated. Their return voyage was delayed by a Russian cargo craft that failed back in April.
The intrepid trio includes Terry Virts of NASA, Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos, and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (ESA). They are heading home in a Soyuz spacecraft that left the ISS this morning (June 11, 2015). The voyage will take over three hours. The landing agenda is precisely timetabled: Their deorbit burn is predicted to take 4 minutes and 35 seconds, and they are expected to land in Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan at 9:43 am (EST).
The delayed return means that Ms. Cristoforetti has set a new record for the most time spent in space on a single mission by a woman. She has spent 200 consecutive days in space. This breaks the previous record of 195 days set by Sunita Williams of NASA.
This isn't Cristoforetti's only achievement. In true Italian style, she also introduced an espresso machine called the ISSpresso to the ISS that was specially adapted to work in space. You can also see her hosting her own ISS cooking show here.
Cristoforetti making a meal on the ISS. On the menu is chicken tortillas.
The return mission was delayed after a Russian Progress spacecraft lost contact with Earth shortly after launching. It spun out of control, whizzing around Earth before burning up in the atmosphere. The cargo ship was carrying supplies for the ISS, including water, air and food. The failed launch caused a backlog of postponed flights while investigations on the Proton rocket failure took place.
When the astronauts return to Earth, it will be interesting to see how long periods of time in space have affected their physical health. Astronauts suffer bone loss, muscle deterioration and are exposed to unfiltered radiation when they explore space. Finding solutions to these problems is essential if mankind ever wants a serious chance of inhabiting other planets. For example, a trip to Mars is projected to take eight months. That's a lot of time without gravity, even longer than Cristoforetti's record-breaking stay on the ISS.
But in the meantime, get ready to welcome the trio back to Earth!