A Russian Soyuz spacecraft with three astronauts aboard successfully undocked from the International Space Station late Friday to begin the voyage home, one day after a technical glitch delayed its departure.
The Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft cast off from the space station right on time at 10:02 p.m. ET, executing a flawless undocking with no hint of the undocking malfunction that thwarted its first attempt yesterday.
"We have separation," Soyuz commander Alexander Skvortsov, a Russian cosmonaut, said as the two spacecraft separated while sailing 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the Russian-Mongolian border.
Skvortsov is returning to Earth with fellow cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson to cap a 176-day spaceflight. They are due to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia at 1:21 a.m. ET.
The astronauts' homecoming was delayed by one day due to a malfunctioning microswitch on the space station's Russian Poisk docking port, where their Soyuz vehicle was parked. The faulty part prevented a set of hooks and latches on the docking port from releasing its grip on the Soyuz. [Graphic – Inside and Out: The International Space Station]
Astronauts on the station bypassed the switch with a set of electrical cables, clearing the way for Friday's smooth undocking.
"Guys, God be with you," one of the three astronauts remaining behind on the space station told the Soyuz crew.
The space station is typically staffed by a full crew of six astronauts, though they arrive on a staggered schedule of three people per team.
Remaining behind on the space station are American astronauts Doug Wheelock, Shannon Walker and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. They will be joined next month by a new three-person team.
Next up for the astronauts on the returning Soyuz is the deorbit burn, an engine maneuver that will slow their spacecraft to begin its final descent and landing.
That engine burn is slated to begin at 12:32 a.m. ET (0432 GMT). The Soyuz crew capsule will separate from the vehicle's two expendable modules, and then deploy a parachute to slow its descent. A set of retro rockets will cushion the capsule's landing on the Kazakh steppes.
A fleet of 12 Russian recovery helicopters is preparing to meet the returning Soyuz crew. Clear, sunny skies await the returning spacefliers, NASA officials said.