Four astronauts have spent more than 160 days in space and their Crew Dragon spacecraft is expected to return to Earth on Sunday.
Four astronauts have left the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, after more than 160 days in space that will end with a splashing landing off the coast of Florida.
The Crew Dragon capsule detached from the ISS as scheduled at 8:35 p.m. Saturday (12:35 a.m. Sunday GMT).
With the flight back to Earth scheduled to take six and a half hours, the crew was expected to splash around in the dark of night early Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico just outside Panama City, Florida.
“The separation of the dragon is visually confirmed,” a NASA commentator said after two sets of six hooks securing the capsule to the ISS retracted.
The capsule then fired a series of short bursts with its thrusters to gently pull away from the ISS.
Images broadcast live from NASA showed the Crew Dragon capsule moving in the dark as it began its journey back to Earth, its rear engines igniting in small flashes.
Seven astronauts remained on the ISS, including a new crew of four who arrived on another SpaceX spacecraft last week.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” said Michael Hopkins, one of the departing American astronauts, as the capsule pulled away. “We will see you on Earth again.”
NASA and SpaceX have alternative projection sites ready, other than Panama City, if needed.
“We practiced picking up crews day and night,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial program manager, shortly before the capsule left.
“The ships are well lit,” aided by “good moonlight,” he said, adding that the weather conditions were excellent, with calm seas.
SpaceX ships are expected to reach the capsule about 10 minutes after splashing.
Astronauts Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi flew into space last November as a crew for the first fully operational mission to the ISS aboard a SpaceX-made vehicle from Elon Musk, who has become NASA’s Preferred Commercial Transportation Partner.
Previously, two American astronauts carried out a test mission to the ISS in May and stayed there for two months.
It was the first launch to the ISS from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. It was also the first manned mission led by a private company, as opposed to NASA.
Until now, American astronauts have been taking walks to the ISS aboard a Russian spacecraft since the end of the space shuttle program.