A crew of three are due to return from the International Space Station (ISS) early on Friday, to a very different planet they left last year.
No strangers to isolation, Russian Oleg Skrypochka and Jessica Meir from the US left Earth in September 2019, well before Covid-19 emerged.
Another American, Andrew Morgan, has been on the ISS since July 2019.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the usual routine for returning space crews.
“It’s quite surreal to see it unfolding on Earth below,” Ms Meir told reporters during a recent video call. “From here, Earth looks just as stunning as usual, so it’s hard to believe all of the changes that have taken place since we left.”
The trio are scheduled to return to Earth at 05:00 GMT on Friday, by which time Mr Skrypochka and Ms Meir will have spent 205 days in space, and Mr Morgan 272 days.
The capsule normally lands somewhere in Kazakhstan, then a search team picks up the crew and brings them to the closest airport and they all fly home.
This time Kazakhstan has declared a state of emergency and most of the airports are closed.
The search party is currently in strict quarantine and will have to take a test immediately before going out to pick up the arrivals, to ensure they cannot be infected.
A replacement crew of two Russians and an American who flew to the ISS on 9 April also took the utmost precautions to avoid taking the infection into space, spending a month and a half in quarantine before the launch.
The Baikonur space launch pad, leased by Russia from Kazakhstan, is still operating and the three crew members will be flown there. The Russian will take a plane home while the Americans will be driven three hours to the south-east to Kyzylorda, from where a Nasa plane will fly them back to the US.
Usually, a team of returning astronauts and cosmonauts will undergo a special rehabilitation program lasting several weeks. After a long stay in zero gravity, the body needs time to get used to life in constant gravity.
But this time doctors have the additional task of protecting the crew from coronavirus.
“It will be difficult to not give hugs to family and friends after being up here for seven months,” said Ms Meir, who last year made history after completing the first ever all-female spacewalk with another Nasa astronaut, Christina Koch.
“I think I will feel more isolated on Earth than here. We’re busy with amazing pursuits and tasks and don’t feel the isolation,” she added.
The ISS has been orbiting the Earth since 1998. Five partners are involved – the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.
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