Arab world’s first ISS visitor prepares for Earth return

Russian space agency confirms successful unlocking from ISS as Emirati al-Mansoori prepares for hero status return to Earth.

ALMATY - A Soyuz spacecraft carrying an Emirati who was the first Arab to reach the International Space Station left the orbital lab Thursday ahead of his return to Earth and hero status in his homeland.

Hazzaa al-Mansoori of the United Arab Emirates was to touch down in the Kazakh steppes around 1100 GMT along with NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, who both survived a failed launch to the ISS last year.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, confirmed a successful undocking from the ISS at 0737 GMT.

Hague and Ovchinin are completing a 203-day mission aboard the lab while Mansoori's two crewmates from the September 25 launch -- Russia's Oleg Skripochka and NASA's Jessica Meir -- will stay on as part of a six-member team.

Although Mansoori's mission was short -- eight days in total -- it has still been the source of great pride in the UAE, a newcomer to the world of space with ambitions to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021.

Mansoori has been active on Twitter where he posted photos of the UAE and Mecca -- Islam's holiest site -- from the space station.

On Thursday he posted a view of space from inside the space station's famous Cupola module and paid tribute to UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed.

"With fear and pride, I am returning with Zayed's ambition achieved. We are not done yet, and we will never be. To bring back the golden era of Arab astronauts," he wrote.

Mansoori's blast-off from the launchpad that sent Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space was roared on by a large crowd at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, where he has been feted as a hero.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper, was lit up at the moment of the launch.

The 35-year-old former military pilot's whirlwind mission has had wall-to-wall coverage in Arab media.

UAE sets sights on Mars 

The first Arab in outer space was Saudi Arabia's Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on a US shuttle mission in 1985.

Two years later, Syrian air force pilot Muhammed Faris spent a week aboard the Soviet Union's Mir space station.

As part of its space plans, the UAE has also announced its aim to become the first Arab country to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021, naming it "Hope".

While on board Mansoori donned Emirati dress, treated crew members to local snacks and participated in scientific experiments including a time-perception study that saw him sport a blindfold.

In a question-and-answer session with Emirati schoolchildren, the father of four said a call to his mother would be his top priority at the end of his journey of just over three hours.

The return from space of Ovchinin and Hague will also be watched closely, a year after they failed to launch in the first accident of its kind in Russia's post-Soviet history.

The two men took off in a Soyuz rocket for the ISS in October 2018, but an accident minutes after blast-off sent them plunging back to Earth.

The pair launched again -- this time without hiccups -- to begin Ovchinin's second and Hague's first mission aboard the ISS in February.

The ISS -- a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West -- has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres (17,000 miles) an hour since 1998.