An International Space Station crew has landed safely in Kazakhstan after more than 200 days in space.
The Soyuz capsule carrying Nasa astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir and Russian space agency Roscosmos’s Oleg Skripochka touched down on Friday near the town of Dzhezkazgan.
The capsule landed under a striped orange-and-white parachute about 93 miles south-east of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.
Russian officials said they took stringent measures to protect the crew amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The recovery team and medical personnel assigned to help the crew out of the capsule and for post-flight checks had been under close medical observation for nearly a month, including tests for coronavirus.
The space crew smiled as they talked to medical experts wearing masks. Following a quick check-up, the crew will be flown by helicopters to Baikonur, from where Mr Skripochka will be taken to Moscow, said Vyacheslav Rogozhnikov, a Russian medical official who oversaw the crew’s return.
Mr Morgan and Ms Meir will have to be driven from Baikonur to Kyzyl-Orda, 190 miles away, to board a flight to the US – a strenuous journey made necessary by Kazakhstan’s quarantine measures.
On Thursday, the Russian government coronavirus headquarters reported the first contagion at Star City, which serves as the main hub for pre-flight training of US, Russian and other international crew members of the International Space Station.
Star City also has residential quarters for cosmonauts and support staff.
On Friday, Roscosmos said it had 42 coronavirus cases and reported the first deaths. It said two workers who died had tested positive for the virus and another employee, who died of pneumonia, was suspected of having the infection.
The crew returned to Earth exactly 50 years after the Apollo 13 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific after an oxygen tank explosion aborted the moon landing mission.
Mr Morgan wrapped up a 272-day mission on his first flight into space. He conducted seven space walks, four of which were to improve and extend the life of the station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which looks for evidence of dark matter in the universe.
Ms Meir and Mr Skripochka spent 205 days in space, with Ms Meir carrying out the first three all-women spacewalks with her crewmate Christina Koch, who returned from space in February.
Speaking from the orbiting outpost before the return, the crew said that coming back to an Earth drastically changed by the pandemic will be challenging.
Mr Morgan said the crew has tried to keep up with the coronavirus news, but added that it was hard to comprehend what was really going on.
“It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below,” said Ms Meir.
“We can tell you that the Earth still looks just as stunning as always from up here, so it’s difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place since both of us have been up here.”
A new crew comprising Nasa’s Chris Cassidy and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner arrived at the station on April 9.
They said before blast-off that they had been under a very strict quarantine for a month before the flight and were feeling good.