Home, James... and don't spare the horses! Image: NASA.
The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis are presently on their way back to Earth after completing a routine supply run to the International Space Station (ISS), during which time they also performed valuable maintenance that should provide the orbiting science facility with a further five to 10 years of operation.
NASA's stalwart space vehicle uncoupled from the ISS on Wednesday as both station and shuttle passed over the Pacific at a height of some 220 miles. According to the U.S. Space administration's mission schedule, Atlantis is expected to touch down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this coming Friday morning.
However, before Atlantis can begin its reentry, the crew must first carry out a final remote inspection of the orbiter's wings and nose in order to ensure the shuttle's sensitive heat shielding has not suffered any potentially threatening damage during launch or from passing micrometeorites while in orbit.
This latest shuttle supply run has been a fairly uneventful affair compared to recent NASA sojourns to the ISS, mainly insofar as launch, journey, and docking procedure were all completed with minimal fuss – core elements of success a number of 2009 missions have not enjoyed.
Also serving as something of a glorified taxi service, Atlantis will arrive in Florida with returning astronaut Nicole Stott, who had served for three months on the station before boarding the shuttle and heading home. Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne will be following Stott back to Earth next week aboard a Russian space capsule.