British astronaut Tim Peake will today say goodbye to the space station that has been his home for the past six months and return to Earth.
A Soyuz space capsule carrying the 44-year-old former helicopter test pilot is due to land on a remote spot on the Kazakhstan steppe at around 10:15am.
With him will be Principia mission crewmates, US Nasa astronaut Colonel Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.
Shortly after 3am, the three men were due to scramble from the International Space Station to the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft that took them into orbit on 15 December last year.
Closing the hatch will mark the official end of Major Peake’s historic mission, which earned him an honour from the Queen for “extraordinary service beyond our planet”. He was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for “extraordinary service beyond our planet”.
Major Peake was the first British astronaut to be sent to the ISS by the European Space Agency, and only the second Briton in space after Dr Helen Sharman’s trip in 1991.
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The father-of-two took part in more than 250 experiments, performed a space walk, ran the London Marathon on a treadmill, and inspired more than a million schoolchildren.
The trip home involves a hair-raising plunge through the atmosphere in the tiny middle section of the Soyuz, the descent module. Friction on the spacecraft’s heat shield will slow its speed from 17,398mph to 514mph and raise the outside temperature to 1,600C. The rapid deceleration will push the crew back into their shock-absorbing seats with a force of around 5G – five times Earth gravity.
One Nasa astronaut, Doug Wheelock, has described the experience of a Soyuz descent as “like going over Niagara falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire”.
If all goes according to plan, the return to Earth will be controlled automatically by the craft’s on-board computer.
Fifteen minutes before landing, four parachutes will be deployed in succession. One second before touchdown, retro rockets will fire and the spacecraft will hit the ground at 3mph. The capsule is expected to land in a remote location on steppe scrubland more than 200 miles from the Kazakh city of Karaganda.
The crew will then be helicoptered to Karaganda airport, where according to tradition they will be offered bread and salt and a traditional Kazak hat.
Major Peake will then be flown to the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, while his American and Russian colleagues go to Houston and Star City, near Moscow.