April 16 (UPI) -- Two astronauts and a cosmonaut were scheduled to depart from the International Space Station at 9:53 p.m. EDT Thursday after concluding their mission.
NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, who has spent nine months living and working on the space station, will join NASA astronaut Jessica Meir and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos for the return flight.
All three had left Earth before the coronavirus pandemic began, as Meir noted in a live broadcast Friday from the space station.
"It's a little bit difficult to believe that we are truly going back to a different planet," Meir said. She added that watching from space as billions of people on Earth dealt with the pandemic was "surreal."
The three space travelers were scheduled to say goodbye to their successors on the space station at 6 p.m. and then be locked inside a Russian Soyuz capsule at 6:30 p.m. to prepare for the undocking.
Once the space travelers are on the way back, NASA plans to provide coverage again during the deorbit burn at 12:22 a.m. EDT Friday and the parachute-assisted landing at 1:16 a.m. EDT in Kazakhstan.
Morgan's 272-day mission began July 20. His flight spanned 4,352 Earth orbits and 115.3 million miles. He conducted seven spacewalks, totaling 45 hours, 48 minutes, four of which were to improve and extend the life of the station's Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer as it looks for evidence of dark matter in the universe.
Meir and Skripochka, who lifted off Sept. 25, will land with Morgan after 205 days in space, 3,280 orbits of Earth and a trip of 86.9 million miles.
During what was her first spaceflight, Meir conducted the first three all-woman spacewalks with crewmate Christina Koch of NASA that totaled 21 hours, 44 minutes. Skripochka was completing his third spaceflight for a cumulative 536 days in orbit.
U.S astronaut Chris Cassidy took charge on the space station Wednesday. He is accompanied by cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.