Young visitors star-struck as UK astronaut's capsule touches (County) Down
The spacecraft that brought UK astronaut Tim Peake safely back to Earth has 'landed' in Northern Ireland.
The Soyuz TMA-19M capsule - part of a successful mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015-16 - goes on display today at the Ulster Transport Museum in Co Down.
It is believed to be the first time a descent module, along with its descent parachute (25 metres in diameter, equivalent to two tennis courts, has gone on public show here.
Peake was the UK's first European Space Agency astronaut and spent six months orbiting the globe as part of the Principia mission, which ended in June 2016, winning legions of space fans along the way.
Yesterday pupils from Scoil an Droichid in south Belfast got an exclusive sneak peek before the official opening.
Eight-year-old Caoimhe Magill said seeing the spacecraft was incredible.
"To be the one school to be picked especially for this is amazing," she said.
"My mummy's a scientist at Queen's, so she can help me learn more about space."
The capsule, which also carried astronauts Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Kopra back to Earth, is on the final stop of a seven-venue tour across the UK organised by the Science Museum Group.
Soyuz TMA-19M, which weighs 1.5 tonnes, actually had a longer journey from the National Museum Cardiff to the Ulster Transport Museum than its original spaceflight.
In 2015 the craft transported the Expedition 46 crew 250 miles from Earth to the ISS. By contrast, the final stop-off on the UK-wide tour involved a trip of over 350 miles from Wales to Belfast, then on to the museum in Holywood.
The capsule, which is roughly two metres high and two metres wide, bears scorch marks, a permanent reminder of its high-speed descent back to terra firma, hurtling at times at a rate of 230m per second and battling a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius.
Dr Norah Patten, an aeronautical engineer, is currently training to become potentially the first person from the Republic to go into space.
She said displays of items such as Peake's module were crucial to inspiring young people.
"My parents took me to NASA as a child and you never know what visits like that will spark. It shaped my life," she said.
The Co Mayo native who is a faculty member at the International Space University, spoke to the school children yesterday about her experience as a candidate with a citizen space programme. She added: "I think that Tim Peake has helped people learn so much more about the process of travelling to space."
Hannah Crowdy, National Museums NI's head of curatorial, said she expected the display, which also boasts the astronaut's spacesuit and a separate interactive virtual reality experience, to be a big hit with visitors.
"We're expecting tens of thousands of people to come see the spacecraft in person," she explained.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for the Ulster Transport to have such an important piece of space history on display."
The exhibition, which is free, runs until May 12.