Mystery Comms Blackout Blights Returning ISS Trio

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Three of the International Space Station’s live-aboard staff returned to Earth Thursday night, leaving a skeleton crew in orbit until replacements arrive in mid-November.

Riding inside a Russian Soyuz capsule, cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and U.S. astronaut Ron Garan touched down in Kazakhstan just before midnight after a 3.5-hour ride. The trio had been in orbit for more than five months.

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An unexplained communications loss left flight controllers unable to speak with the crew during the last 15 minutes of their descent. The first indication that the capsule survived its fiery plunge through the atmosphere was a series of beeps signaling components of the Soyuz had been jettisoned as planned.

Later, ground controllers picked up signals that the Soyuz’s parachutes had deployed, but it wasn’t until a Russian recovery aircraft established two-way radio communications with the crew that flight controllers knew all was well.

The departure of Borisenko, Samokutyaev and Garan from the station leaves NASA’s Mike Fossum, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa and Russia’s Sergei Volkov on their own for an extended two-month period.

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Replacements were due to arrive Sept. 24, but the flight was delayed following an Aug. 24 launch accident that claimed a Russian cargo ship bound for the station.

The upper-stage motor that failed on the Russian Progress rocket is virtually identical to one used to fly crew to the station on Soyuz rockets. The new crew is now scheduled to launch on Nov. 14 and arrive at the station two days later.

They will have less than week to learn the station’s operations from Fossum and his crew, who are scheduled to head home themselves on Nov. 22.

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The Progress launch failure is believed to have been caused by blockage in a kerosene fuel line. Russia plans to fly another cargo ship on Oct. 30 before launching the next station crew.

Image: Heading home — in silence. Credit: Spaceflightnow.com via NASA TV for Discovery News.