Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is coming back to Earth on Wednesday after four and a half days docked at the International Space Station. The return, to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, will conclude an uncrewed trial run for the spacecraft, which is designed for NASA to carry astronauts to and from the space station.
When are the undocking and landing events, and how can I watch them?
Astronauts on the space station closed the hatch to the Starliner capsule Tuesday after filling it with 600 pounds of cargo to be returned to Earth.
The spacecraft undocked from the orbiting outpost on scheduled at 2:36 p.m. Eastern time. Less than 20 minutes later, it was more than 300 feet from the station and preparing for its journey back to the ground as the side of the Earth facing the sun came into view.
“It was a great stay by Starliner. We’re a little sad to see her go,” said Bob Hines, a NASA astronaut currently aboard the space station, after confirming the departure was successful.
NASA Television’s livestream will resume at 5:45 p.m. Landing is expected at 6:49 p.m.
What will happen during the trip home?
After it departs the space station, Starliner will line up its trajectory with the selected landing site in New Mexico. At 6:05 p.m. Eastern time, it is scheduled to fire its thrusters in what is known as the deorbit burn, which will drop the spacecraft out of orbit.
Once the burn is complete, the service module — the part below the cone-shaped capsule that contains most of the spacecraft’s propulsion and power systems — is discarded. The service module will re-enter the atmosphere separately and burn up.
The Starliner capsule, meanwhile, will slice through the atmosphere; the compression of air against the blunt bottom will sear the heat shield to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
At an altitude of 28,000 feet, two small parachutes called drogues will deploy. The three main parachutes will deploy about a minute later.
Although Russian and Chinese astronaut transports have long parachuted onto land instead of splashing in the ocean, Starliner is the first American capsule to use that approach. Avoiding salt water should help simplify refurbishment of the capsule, which is designed to be used up to 10 times.
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