On the evening of March 11 (Eastern Time; it was the morning of March 12 in Kazakhstan) three astronauts returned home from the International Space Station in their Russian-built Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft.
The astronauts were Elena Serova (RUS), Alexander Samokutyaev (RUS), and Barry “Butch” Wilmore (NASA). The landing went smoothly (as smoothly as a Soyuz landing can go, at least). They touched down vertically, and on schedule, on a cold and foggy morning in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. It was about 30 minutes after sunrise.
And in the process of all that, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls took one of the most amazing Soyuz landing photos I’ve seen.
The Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 42 commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Elena Serova of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Thursday, March 12, 2015 (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
…and “amazing” doesn’t really do this photo justice. It’s majestic. It’s almost surreal (I actually looked twice when I first saw it to make sure it was indeed a real photograph, and not CGI).
The photo was taken from an aircraft just before the Soyuz disappeared into a layer of cloud on its journey to terra firma.
The astronauts had spent about six months on board the ISS as a part of the Expedition 41 and 42 crews.
To see some more photos from the landing (and download hi-res versions), check out this NASA Photoset on Flickr.
I realize this might not be your first thought when watching the video clip, but it really is.
Those seven seconds of carnage were a great sign of success. That Falcon 9, about 10 minutes earlier on January 10th, was sitting on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The pad is 320km to the west of the barge. The barge is 100×300 feet, floating in the ocean.
The Falcon 9 launched, released the upper stage on it’s way to the International Space Station (which arrived flawlessly), and then the first stage managed to navigate itself to that barge.
That feat alone is pretty amazing.
The barge – all 30,000 sq feet of it – is TINY. Getting the Falcon 9 anywhere near it is impressive.
(Consider for comparison something with a landing envelope of say, 5 square kilometers (aka about 43,000,000 sq feet). In spaceflight terms, 5 sq km is an incredibly precise landing. 30,000 feet is 0.07% of 43,000,000 – or about 1500 times more precise.)
And then they almost landed it. If it hadn’t run out of that pesky hydraulic fluid used to control the aerodynamic fins – causing them to lock up – it probably would have made it, or at least come closer.
SpaceX will try again, and that’s what all this is about.
(Update: They’ll try again on the CRS6 launch, currently scheduled for Monday, April 13, 2015 @ 4:33 p.m. ET.)
Progress to make launching rockets more cost effective. Progress to find new ways to control rockets in flight. Progress to make them more efficient.
And one day, progress towards being able to fly a rocket to another world, land it, and then come back home with it — because remember, that is Elon Musk’s goal.
Video of that hard barge landing is exactly what progress looks like.
It’s the first Moon landing in my lifetime, and if you’re under age 37 it’s the first one in your lifetime as well.
On Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 8:11 a.m. EST the robotic Chinese lander Chang’e-3, and it’s rover named Yutu, touched down safely on the lunar surface. This historic landing is the first Moon landing for China, making them only the third nation to safely land a probe on our closest celestial neighbour.
The Yutu rover successfully separated just after 4:00 p.m. EST.
This is the first object to safely land on the Moon since the Soviet robotic mission Luna 24 landed on August 22, 1976.
The last time humans were on the Moon was December 11-14, 1972 during the last of NASA’s Apollo missions, Apollo 17. This also places added historical significance on today’s date – December 14 – as it is both the last time a human was on the Moon in 1972, and today’s first Chinese landing.
Chang’e-3 launched on December 2 and then took about four days to reach lunar orbit. From December 6-14, the orbit was being adjusted in order to setup today’s descent and landing.
Today’s landing, considered one of the biggest challenges of the mission, consisted of approximately 12-minutes of powered descent towards the surface. When the lander was just a couple meters above the surface, the engine shutdown as planned. This allowed the lander to float down safely, but also minimized the amount of dust that would have been kicked up if powered flight continued all the way to the surface.
After landing the vitally important solar panels deployed successfully and began powering the lander and rover.
When Yutu was deployed, it drove forwards onto a small ramp and was the lowered to the surface. All six of it’s wheels then drove off the ramp and onto the lunar surface, leaving clear tracks behind it as it slowly moved along.
The touchdown happened in an area of the Moon known as The Bay of Rainbow.
China’s first two missions to the Moon, Chang’e 1 and 2, were both orbiters. They had no intention of landing. Chang’e-3 was the country’s first attempt at landing.
In Chinese mythology, Chang’e is a goddess that travels to the Moon. Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, is her companion.
The Yutu rover is expected to operate for about three months while the Chang’e-3 lander should operate for about one year on the surface of the Moon.
Curiosity, aka The Mars Science Laboratory, touched down as scheduled at 1:31am EDT on the morning of August 6, 2012 (10:31pm PDT August 5, 2012) after a 254-day journey that covered some 567 million kilometres.
And here is an image from descent captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), one of three satellites that is in orbit around Mars:
The MRO captures this image of Curiosity during descent, seen with its parachute deployed
After watching that video and seeing this image, my only real question is: Who needs science fiction or reality television? What you just watched in that video actually happened – IN REAL LIFE – last night, on another planet 248 million kilometres away.
Harrison lives in Ottawa, Canada. He works in politics and is passionate about many things, including space and exploration. He's worked for a national news outlet, managing the digital products, writing news, and appearing on air to talk about science, technology, and politics. In his spare time he enjoys astronomy, scuba diving, flying airplanes, photography, and sports.