In Brief

Astronauts make emergency landing after major rocket malfunction

Russian and American astronauts said to be safe after emergency landing

Two astronauts were forced to make an emergency return to Earth after the rocket carrying them to the International Space Station (ISS) malfunctioned shortly after lift-off.

The Russian-made Soyuz rocket, carrying Nasa astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, launched from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome this morning for what was supposed to be a six-hour journey to the ISS. It was Hague’s first space mission.

However, around two minutes after lift-off, the spacecraft’s booster rocket malfunctioned. The booster, which usually detaches from the spacecraft in three stages, failed seconds after completing its first stage.

Video footage shows the two astronauts being “shaken around” inside their capsule in the moments after the malfunction, says the BBC.

The crew told ground control they felt weightless, “when they should have been pushed firmly into their seats via the force of the rocket’s propulsion”, says NasaSpaceflight.com.

The failure of the booster forced the crew to return towards Earth in ballistic mode, “meaning that it was falling without propulsion and that its direction was determined only by the craft’s momentum”, the New York Times reports.

In accordance with emergency protocol, the capsule disengaged from the faulty booster and then activated parachutes to slow the capsule as it neared the ground, finally “thumping down in a plume of dust” near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, 300 miles away from their launch point, CNN reports.

A tweet from Nasa confirmed that both astronauts were “in good condition” and had been picked up from the scene of their emergency landing by a rescue team.

But while the pair may have escaped unharmed, their experience will not have been a pleasant one, says the BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos. The “very sharp deceleration” on the descent would have made theirs “an uncomfortable ride back to Earth”.

Russian agency Roscosmos later tweeted photos of the two men receiving a medical evaluation:

The Russian space agency has announced that it is to form a commission to investigate the incident.

“At present, the Soyuz rocket is the only means of reliably transporting people to and from the space station,” says The Times, meaning today’s aborted mission “could have implications for the crew on board the space station, who were due to be replaced in December”.

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