A Soyuz-U rocket soared into the sky on Saturday, July 16, carrying the third Progress MS spacecraft loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff took place at 5:41 p.m. EDT (21:41 GMT) from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
After launch, the rocket started its routine short vertical ascent before turning northeasterly, heading toward the Kazakh-Russian border. Powered by four strap-on boosters fitted with RD-117 engines and its core stage with one RD-118 engine, the launch vehicle flew for nearly two minutes until the boosters were jettisoned. Then the core stage continued the flight for about three minutes. This phase of the mission was concluded at about four minutes and 47 seconds after liftoff when the core stage separated from the launch vehicle.
Afterward, the rocket’s third stage ignited its RD-0110 engine and took control over the flight to deliver the spacecraft into orbit.
At approximately five minutes after launch, the payload fairing was jettisoned, exposing the Progress MS cargo vessel. With its payload revealed, the launch vehicle continued the flight for about four minutes. Then, at eight minutes and 47 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft was deployed into space.
Shortly after separation, the Progress MS vehicle deployed its two power-generating solar arrays and navigation antennas, commencing its two-day trek to the ISS. A series of engine burns is planned to be conducted in order to correct the craft’s course and align it with the orbital laboratory. On its way to the ISS, the vehicle will complete 34 Earth orbits.
The spacecraft is expected to dock with the space station’s Pirs module at 8:22 p.m. EDT July 18 (00:22 GMT July 19). It will remain at the ISS for more than six months before departing in mid-January. After departure, it is expected to burn up on re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.
The mission, designated Progress MS-03 (Progress 64P in NASA’s numbering system), was initially planned for April 30. However, it was delayed due to the postponement of the manned Soyuz MS-01 mission to the ISS that eventually took place last week.
The spacecraft was shipped to the Baikonur Space Center on Jan. 25. After a series of tests and checkouts in February and March, it was ready for integration with the launch vehicle. However, due to rescheduling in the ISS launch manifest, the spacecraft was kept in storage longer than expected.
In mid-June, when the launch was finally scheduled for July 16, the teams started final preparations for the mission. The filling operations were conducted during July 6–8 and, after that, the Progress MS-03 was transported by rail to the spacecraft processing facility and installed onto a jig for further pre-launch processing. On July 11, the spacecraft was integrated with its launch vehicle adapter. Afterward, it was encapsulated in the payload fairing and mated to the Soyuz-U booster.
Progress MS-03 will deliver about 5,500 pounds (2.5 metric tons) of cargo to the ISS. Specifically, it will transport about 3,500 pounds (1.6 metric tons) of propellant components, 103 pounds (46.72 kilograms) of compressed air, 926 pounds (420 kilograms) of water, as well as other consumables for the life support system, and scientific equipment. It will also ship 825 pounds (374 kilograms) of containers with food, clothing, medical supplies, and personal hygiene items for crew members aboard the space station.
Manufactured by RKK Energia, Progress MS is an improved variant of the Progress automated cargo spacecraft that has been used to deliver supplies to the space station. It has a similar size, mass, and cargo capacity as the modified Progress-M employed previously in this role.
Progress MS is 23.6 feet (7.2 meters) long and is 8.9 feet (2.7 meters) in diameter. With a total mass of about 7.3 metric tons, it is capable of carrying up to 2.5 metric tons of cargo into space.
The spacecraft is fitted with two deployable solar arrays and is composed of three components: a cargo module, a refueling module, and an instrument service module.
The spacecraft docks automatically to the ISS; however, it is also equipped with a backup remote control docking system. After docking, it usually remains at the space station for about two to three months.
The MS variant features a series of upgrades. The improvements include the addition of an external compartment that enables deployment of small satellites, the addition of a backup system of electrical motors for the docking and sealing mechanism, and additional panels in the cargo compartment that increase protection from micrometeoroids.
The spacecraft also has a number of upgrades regarding telemetry and navigation systems, as well as a new digital communication system that enables enhanced TV camera views during docking operations.
The first Progress MS spacecraft was lofted into space on Dec. 21, 2015, whereas the second craft in the series was launched to the ISS on March 31, 2016. The next resupply mission of this vehicle, designated Progress MS-04, is currently planned for Oct. 20. It will fly to space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz-U launcher.
After Progress MS-04, eight more orbital flights of this spacecraft are scheduled for 2016 to 2018. The Soyuz 2.1a and Soyuz-U rockets will serve as launch vehicles to loft these spacecraft from Baikonur; however, when the new Vostochny Cosmodrome, which is still under construction, becomes fully operational, these launches will be transitioned there.
The Soyuz-U, which was launched for the first time in 1973, is the most flown rocket in the historic Soyuz launcher family. The launch vehicle is currently used to transport Progress spacecraft to the ISS and occasionally to launch military reconnaissance payloads.
The vehicle stands 167 feet (51.1 meters) tall with a main diameter of 9 feet (2.95 meters) and a maximum diameter of 33 feet (10.3 meters). Liftoff mass is about 313 metric tons. It is capable of delivering payloads of up to 6.9 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Saturday’s launch was the 16th orbital mission for Russia and the eighth liftoff from Baikonur this year. The next Russian launch is planned for August 29 when a Proton-M rocket will take to the skies from Baikonur to deliver the EchoStar 21 communications satellite into orbit.
Two days after the launch of Progress MS-03, another cargo craft is planned to be launched to the orbital laboratory. On July 18, the SpaceX CRS-9 mission will be lofted atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.