Thundering off from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a Soyuz-FG rocket lit up the early morning sky, marking the first launch of Russia’s upgraded Soyuz MS spacecraft. The mission, carrying a trio of future International Space Station (ISS) inhabitants, was launched exactly at 4:36 a.m. MSK (01:36 GMT) on Thursday, July 7 (9:36 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 6), 2016.
The crew of the mission, designated Soyuz MS-01, consists of NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The launch was initially planned for June 24 but was delayed due to spacecraft software glitches that could have impacted the docking procedure with the ISS.
The crew arrived at Baikonur on June 24 to complete final training and pre-launch activities. Final preparations of the spacecraft also took place at the end of June. It was filled with propellant and compressed gases on June 27. Then it was brought into the spacecraft processing facility and installed onto a jig for further pre-launch processing. The next day, the spacecraft was mated to the adapter section of the launch vehicle and underwent final inspections on June 30. The rocket, after its assembly and mating with the spacecraft on Sunday, July 3, was rolled out to the launch pad on the next day.
Powered by its core stage and four strap-on boosters, the Soyuz-FG launcher started its short vertical ascent, before it turned northeasterly, setting a course for the ISS. The boosters accelerated the vehicle for about two minutes until they run out of fuel and were jettisoned.
About half a minute later, the rocket detached its protective launch shroud, enabling the crew to view outside through the spacecraft’s windows. Powered by the core stage alone, the launch vehicle continued this phase of the flight for slightly more than two minutes until the engine was shut down at about four minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff.
Afterward, the rocket’s third stage took control over the mission, leading the spacecraft to a planned separation at nearly nine minutes into the flight. Immediately after being released from the launch vehicle, the Soyuz MS spacecraft deployed its two solar arrays and antennas. From this point onward, the mission control center is responsible for guiding the spacecraft for a planned rendezvous with the ISS.
The cruise of Soyuz MS-01 will last two days, during which the spacecraft is expected to complete 34 orbits of our planet. While chasing the ISS, the crew is scheduled to test modified systems of the spacecraft. A series of engine burns is planned to be conducted in order to put the vehicle into a proper orbit to align it with the orbital laboratory. Soyuz MS-01 is the first of at least two missions in which enhanced Soyuz hardware will be tested and verified.
Developed by RKK Energia, the seven-metric-ton Soyuz MS spacecraft is a modified version of Russia’s flagship Soyuz TMA crewed vehicle currently transporting international crews to the ISS. The upgrades include an improved position control engine and a GLONASS/GPS system. The spacecraft also has a new approach and docking system, a new computer, and more power-efficient solar panels.
“The new model spacecraft are equipped with an advanced onboard radio system for rendezvous and docking Kurs-NA. As compared with an earlier model, Kurs-A, it has improved mass and dimensions parameters and makes it possible to delete from the spacecraft hardware configuration one of the three radio antennas,” RKK Energia revealed on its website.
According to the Soyuz MS manufacturer, thanks to the use of new ground and onboard communication systems, it became possible to use state-of-the-art data transmission protocols, which resulted in an improved operational stability of spacecraft control systems. The company also notes that most of the technical solutions embedded in the structure of this vehicle will be used for creating Russia’s new generation crew transport spacecraft called “Federation”.
The spacecraft is expected to dock with the Space Station’s Rassvet module at 12:12 a.m. EDT (04:12 GMT) on Saturday, July 9, after initializing an automated rendezvous sequence about two-and-a-half hours earlier. The newly arrived crew will be greeted by Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams of NASA, as well as Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, when the hatches between the ISS and Soyuz are opened – nearly three hours after docking.
Shortly after arrival, the new residents will say hello to family and mission officials via a video conference before receiving a safety briefing commencing their stay aboard the orbiting outpost. Their ISS mission will be full of science experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science. The trio will spend approximately four months on the orbital laboratory as their return is scheduled for October.
This flight is the first orbital mission for Rubins and Onishi, whereas Ivanishin has already flown to space. The Russian cosmonaut was a flight engineer for the Expedition 29/30 increment to the ISS. He was launched into space on Nov. 14, 2011, and returned to Earth on April 27, 2012. Due to his spaceflight experience, he serves as the Soyuz MS-01 commander.
The Soyuz-FG measures some 162 feet (49.5 meters) in height and weighs an estimated 305 metric tons at liftoff. The rocket is capable of carrying more than seven metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO). It is a three-stage rocket that utilizes a core stage that burns throughout the first and second stage portions of the flight. Stage one is composed of the Core Stage and four strap-on boosters.
These four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters provide extra lift during the initial phase of the flight. Before liftoff, all four of the boosters are ignited to reach full thrust and then are jettisoned once their fuel tanks are empty.
This launch is the second crewed mission to the ISS this year and the 130th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft overall. Two more Soyuz MS missions are planned to be conducted before the end of 2016. The next launch is currently scheduled for September 23, 2016.