A new Expedition 47 crew of the International Space Station (ISS) has arrived at the orbital laboratory after being successfully launched from the Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trio, consisting of Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka (both Roscosmos) and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, blasted off on time at 5:26 p.m. EDT (21:26 GMT) on Friday, Mar. 18, aboard their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft - the last in the TMA-M series.
The spacecraft was lifted off atop a Soyuz-FG rocket, commonly used by Roscosmos to deliver crews to the ISS. The launch vehicle commenced its vertical ascent being powered by its four RD-107A engines of and the RD-108A of the rocket’s core stage. Then it started heading north-east to set it on track for the so-called “fast rendezvous” four-orbit trip to the Station, lasting only six hours, instead of the normal two-day flight plan.
The Soyuz-FG’s powerful boosters lifted the launch vehicle to an altitude of about 30 miles (49 kilometers) until the Launch Abort System jettisoned its Escape Tower at approximately one minute and 54 seconds into the flight. It enabled a set of mid-altitude abort scenarios for the Soyuz spacecraft, available for the crew until orbital insertion.
Four seconds after the Escape Tower was jettisoned, the four strap-on boosters separated from the launch vehicle. From this point, the core stage’s engine was responsible for accelerating the spacecraft into its targeted orbit. Two minutes and 38 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft’s Launch Shroud was jettisoned to give the crew a view outside their module.
Approximately two minutes and seven seconds later, the engine attached to the core stage was shut down. The third stage’s RD-0110 engine was ignited immediately after the core stage ended its mission. The Soyuz spacecraft continued its flight towards targeted insertion orbit, being powered by the third stage for about four minutes.
At eight minutes and 45 seconds after launch, the cutoff of the third stage occurred. The spacecraft was released three seconds later. Shortly after separation, the Soyuz TMA-20M spaceship was inserted into orbit and deployed its two solar arrays as well as its communication antennas. Next, the Mission Control Center in Moscow took the control over the mission to perform a series of orbit-raising maneuvers in order to navigate the spacecraft to the orbital laboratory.
The mating with the ISS took place at 11:09 p.m. EDT (3:09 GMT on Saturday, Mar. 19). The Soyuz capsule docked to the Poisk module of the Station and the hooks between the spacecraft and the ISS were closed, switching on the safe-docking mode. After carrying leak checks, the hatches were opened at 12:55 a.m. EDT on Saturday, Mar. 19 (4:55 GMT).
The new trio joined Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra (NASA), Flight Engineers Tim Peake (ESA) and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (Roscosmos) and will stay on the ISS for six months. Together, they will continue several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science currently underway and scheduled to take place aboard the Station.
Williams will take command of the station on June 4 for Expedition 48. He will become the new American record holder for cumulative days in space – 534 – surpassing Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly, who recently returned from his one-year long mission on the ISS. It is his third space station expedition and his fourth spaceflight overall.
Ovchinin was selected as a cosmonaut in 2006. It is his first spaceflight. Skripochka has already flown to space. In 2011 he was serving as an Expedition 25/26 crewmember.
The crew arrived at Baikonur on Mar. 3 for the final training before the launch. They fitted on their spacesuits Sokol-KV and after spacesuit leak check took their seats in the Soyuz spacecraft. The crew tested the radio system, checked the laser ranger, became familiar with the onboard documentation, flight program and a list of cargo items. One week ahead of liftoff, the team made a check inspection of the spacecraft in the launch configuration.
On Mar. 14, the orbital module of the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, containing the Soyuz TMA-20M manned spacecraft was transported from the spacecraft processing facility for the general integration with the launch vehicle. The rocket was rolled out of the processing facility and transported to the launch pad two days later. However, the booster remained in a horizontal position until the evening hours due to strong winds. The rocket received its traditional pre-flight blessing on Thursday, Mar. 17.
Friday mission celebrated Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight 55 years ago. A special emblem was put on the payload fairing to commemorate the anniversary.
Soyuz TMA-M, developed and built by RKK Energia, is an upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft features several changes to accommodate requirements requested by NASA in order to service the ISS, including more latitude in the height and weight of the crew and improved parachute systems.
The Soyuz TMA-20M is the last spacecraft in the TMA-M series. It will be replaced by the Soyuz MS spaceship, the final upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft. It will have more efficient solar panels than its predecessors, a new computer and a new approach and docking system. Maiden flight of the Soyuz MS is currently scheduled for June 21, 2016, when it will deliver new Expedition 48 crewmembers to the ISS consisting of Anatoli Ivanishin (Roscosmos), Takuya Onishi (JAXA) and Kathleen Rubins (NASA).
The Soyuz-FG is 162 ft. (49.5 meters) tall weighing 305 metric tons at liftoff, capable of carrying more than seven metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It is a three-stage rocket utilizing a core stage that burns throughout the first and second stage portions of the flight. Stage one is comprised on the Core Stage and four strap-on boosters.
The launch vehicle is outfitted with four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters providing extra lift during the initial phase of the flight. Before liftoff, all four boosters are ignited to reach full thrust and are jettisoned once their fuel tanks are empty.
Friday’s launch was the first manned mission to the ISS this year and the 129th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft in history. Portions of the space station have been on orbit since 1998 and the multi-national facility, which has some 16 different countries working together is currently scheduled to remain on orbit until at least 2024.