If the thought of turning your gaze to a TV screen for election news this evening makes you want to vomit, then you might have some empathy for what two men will feel as they plummet toward the ground from 250 miles on high in a fiery metal can at a rip-roaring 17,000 miles per hour.
That’d be astronaut Scott Kelly’s trip back to Earth tonight, so you’ll forgive him if he isn’t paying attention to politics. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are saying goodbye to the International Space Station today, where they’ve been growing space lettuce, drinking space coffee, and taking glorious pictures of our world for the past 340 days.
When Kelly lands back on terra firma, he’ll have broken two American records: one for the most consecutive days in space, and another for spending the most days in space, period (520). Kelly and Kornienko’s One Year missions are teaching us a lot about how the human body responds to long-term confinement in a weightless and radiation-rich environment—knowledge that will be critical if we ever want send people to Mars.
NASA, naturally, is devoting an entire evening’s worth of livestream programming to Kelly and Kornienko’s (hopefully uneventful) return. Here’s how it’ll go down:
4:15 PM ET: Kelly and Kornienko say goodbye to the big aluminum can they’ve lived, breathed, and shat in for the past 11 months, and hop into a much smaller aluminum can (a Russian Soyuz spacecraft), which will ferry them back to the ground. At 4:40 pm ET, the hatch door closes.
7:45 PM ET: NASA begins its undocking coverage, with the Soyuz spacecraft set to undock from the ISS at 8:05 pm ET.
10:15 PM ET: NASA begins its de-orbit and landing coverage. A de-orbit burn will occur at 10:34 pm, slowing the spacecraft and angling it toward Earth’s atmosphere. At this point, there is no turning back—as Planetary Society blogger Jason Davis put it, the spacecraft is “essentially a flying brick with thrusters.”
Fifteen minutes before landing, parachutes will deploy to slow the Soyuz craft’s descent. A second before touchdown, two sets of three small engines on the bottom of the vehicle will fire to slow the landing even further. Landing is scheduled for 11:27 pm ET, in a 25 mile (30 km)-wide target area near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on the astronauts’ descent, updating if there are any hiccups or delays. So if you need a break from watching a bunch of spray-tanned corn dogs shout their way to the top of the political ladder, you know where to go.