Four astronauts 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, culminating in a landing on the Florida coast.
The Crew Dragon capsule was decoupled from the ISS as scheduled at 20:35 on Saturday (00:35 Sunday GMT).
With the flight back to Earth scheduled to last six and a half hours, the crew was scheduled to fall in the dark on Sunday night in the Gulf of Mexico, next to Panama City, Florida.
“The separation of the dragon has been visually confirmed,” a NASA commentator said after removing two sets of six hooks that tied the capsule to the ISS.
The capsule then fired a series of short bursts with its thrusters to gently move away from the ISS.
Images from NASA’s live broadcast showed the crew’s dragon capsule moving into the dark as it began its journey to Earth, with the rear engines illuminated in small flashes.
Seven astronauts remained on the ISS, including a new crew of four who arrived on a different SpaceX spacecraft last week.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” said Michael Hopkins, one of the American astronauts who came out as the capsule pulled away. “We’ll see each other on Earth again.”
NASA and SpaceX have alternative sites ready, apart from Panama City, if necessary.
“We’ve been practicing to retrieve crews day or night,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said shortly before the capsule’s departure.
“The boats have a lot of lighting,” helped by the “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 the crash.
Hopkins astronauts Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese Soichi Noguchi went into space last November while the crew of the first fully operational mission on the ISS aboard a vehicle manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX , which has become NASA’s favorite commercial transportation partner.
Prior to that, two American astronauts conducted a test mission to the ISS in May and stayed for two months.
This was the first launch to the ISS from U.S. territory since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. It was also the first manned mission led by a private company, unlike NASA.
Until now, U.S. astronauts had been traveling on the ISS aboard the Russian spacecraft since the space shuttle program ended.