SpaceX astronauts return to Earth in historic night splashdown

Nasa captures the first US splashdown under the cover of darkness since 1968

SpaceX has returned four astronauts from the International Space Station, marking the first US crew splashdown in darkness since the Apollo 8 Moon mission.

The Dragon capsule parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, ending the second astronaut flight for Elon Musk’s company.

It was an express trip home, lasting just six-and-a-half hours.

The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule - named Resilience - in which they launched from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in November.

Their 167-day mission is the longest for astronauts launching from the US. The previous record of 84 days was set by Nasa’s final Skylab station crew in 1974.

Saturday night’s undocking left seven people at the space station, four of whom arrived a week ago via SpaceX.

SpaceX had practised for a night-time return, just in case, and even recovered its most recent station cargo capsule from the Gulf of Mexico in darkness. Infrared cameras tracked the capsule as it re-entered the atmosphere; it resembled a bright star streaking through the night sky.

Expedition 64 Flight Engineers and SpaceX Crew-1 members (from left): Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi

All four main parachutes could be seen deploying just before splashdown, which was also visible in the infrared.

Apollo 8 - Nasa’s first flight to the Moon with astronauts - ended with a pre-dawn splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii on December 27 1968.

Eight years later, a Soviet capsule with two cosmonauts ended up in a dark, partially frozen lake in Kazakhstan, blown off course in a blizzard.

That was it for night-time crew splashdowns - until Sunday.