SpaceX capsule brings astronauts home

·2-min read

The third long-duration astronaut team launched by SpaceX to the International Space Station has splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico to end months of research ranging from space-grown chilies to robots.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying three US NASA astronauts and a European Space Agency crewmate from Germany parachuted into calm seas in darkness early on Friday after a 23-hour-plus autonomous flight from the ISS.

The Endurance crew, which began its stay in orbit on November 11, consisted of American spaceflight veteran Tom Marshburn, 61, and three first-time astronauts - NASA's Raja Chari, 44, and Kayla Barron, 34, and their ESA colleague Matthias Maurer, 52.

It was expected to take splashdown-response teams about an hour to reach the capsule bobbing in the water, hoist it onto the deck of a recovery vessel and open the hatch to let the astronauts out for their first breath of fresh air in nearly six months.

The return from orbit followed a fiery re-entry plunge through Earth's atmosphere.

Two sets of parachutes billowed open above the capsule in the final stage of descent, slowing its fall to about 24km/h before the craft hit the water off the coast of Tampa, Florida.

The newly returned astronauts were officially designated as NASA's "Commercial Crew 3," the third full-fledged, long-duration team of four that SpaceX has flown to the space station under contract for the US space agency.

SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc who recently clinched a deal to buy Twitter, supplies the Falcon 9 rockets and Crew Dragon capsules now flying NASA astronauts to orbit.

The company controls those flights and handles the splashdown recoveries, while NASA furnishes the crews and launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and manages US space station operations.

California-based SpaceX has launched seven human spaceflights in all over the past two years - five for NASA and two for private ventures - as well as dozens of cargo and satellite payload missions since 2012.

Aside from carrying out routine maintenance while in orbit some 400km above Earth, the astronauts contributed to hundreds of science experiments and technology demonstrations.

Highlights included studies of the genetic expression in cotton cells cultured in space, gaseous flame combustion in microgravity and the DNA sequences of bacteria inside the station.

Crew members also tested new robot devices, harvested chili peppers grown in orbit and conducted experiments in space physics and materials science.

Barron and Chari performed a spacewalk to prepare the station for another in a series of new light-weight roll-out solar arrays, to be used eventually on the planned Gateway outpost that will orbit the moon.

Crew 3's return comes about a week after they welcomed their replacement team, Crew 4, aboard the space station.

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