Expedition 47 trio heads to ISS aboard final Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft
Three members of the Expedition 47 crew blasted off at 5:26 p.m. EDT (21:26 GMT) from Site 1/5 in their Soyuz spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a six-hour orbital express route to the International Space Station (ISS).
The trio, consisting of Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, were launched into orbit on Friday, March 18, in their Soyuz TMA-20M – the last in the TMA-M series of the storied spacecraft.
The spacecraft was sent into the black of space via the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, commonly used by Roscosmos to deliver crews to the ISS. The booster started its vertical ascent being powered by four RD-107A engines integrated into the four strap-on boosters and the RD-108A in the rocket’s core stage.
Moments later, the vehicle started heading in a northeasterly direction to place it on track for the so-called “fast rendezvous” four-orbit trip to the space station. This path means the flight should only last six hours, instead of the prior flight path which lasted some two days.
The Soyuz-FG’s powerful boosters lifted the launch vehicle to an altitude of about 30 miles (49 kilometers) before the Launch Abort System jettisoned its Escape Tower at approximately one minute and 54 seconds into the flight. Soyuz’s LAS enables 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 and fell back to Earth. 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 giving the crew a view outside of their module.
Approximately two minutes and seven seconds later, the core stage engine was shut down and the third stage’s RD-0110 engine ignited. Powered by the third stage for about four minutes, the Soyuz spacecraft continued its flight towards orbital insertion.
At eight minutes and 45 seconds after launch, the cutoff of the third stage occurred and the spacecraft was released three seconds later. The crew had arrived in orbit.
Shortly after separation, the Soyuz spacecraft deployed its two solar arrays as well as its communication antennas. Next, the Mission Control Center in Moscow took control of the mission to perform a series of orbit-raising maneuvers in order to navigate the spacecraft toward the orbital laboratory.
Soyuz docking with the ISS is planned to take place at 11:11 p.m. EDT (3:12 GMT on Saturday, March 19). The Soyuz capsule will be docked to the Poisk module of the outpost and the hooks between the spacecraft and the ISS will be closed, switching on the safe-docking mode. After carrying out leak checks, the hatches are scheduled to be opened at 12:55 p.m. EDT (4:55 GMT on Saturday, March 19).
The new trio will join Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra (NASA), Flight Engineers Tim Peake (ESA) and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (Roscosmos), and they will stay on the ISS for six months. Together, they will continue several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth sciences that are currently underway and scheduled to take place aboard the Station.
Williams will take command of the station on June 4 under Expedition 48. He will become the new U.S. record holder in terms of cumulative days in space – 534 in total – surpassing Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly, who recently returned from his one-year long mission on the ISS. It will be his third ISS expedition and his fourth space flight overall.
Ovchinin was selected as a cosmonaut in 2006. It will be his first spaceflight. Skripochka has already flown to space. In 2011, he served as a member of the Expedition 25/26 crew.
The trio who flew today arrived at Baikonur on March 3 for their final training before the launch. They donned their Sokol-KV spacesuits and after spacesuit leak check took their seats in the Soyuz spacecraft. The crew tested the vehicle’s 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 an inspection of the spacecraft in its launch configuration.
On March 14, the orbital module of the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, containing the Soyuz TMA-20M crewed spacecraft, was transported from the spacecraft processing facility for 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, March 17.
Today’s mission celebrates Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight 55 years ago. A special emblem was placed on the payload fairing to commemorate the anniversary.
Soyuz TMA-M was developed and built by RKK Energia and is an upgraded version of the original Soyuz spacecraft, which can trace its lineage back to 1967. The spacecraft features several changes to accommodate requirements requested by NASA in order to service the ISS, including more latitude in terms of the height and weight for the crew as well as improved parachute systems.
The Soyuz TMA-20M is the last spacecraft in the TMA-M series. It will be replaced by the Soyuz MS spacecraft, the final planned upgraded version of the Soyuz spacecraft. It is described as having more efficient solar panels than its predecessors, a new computer, and a new approach and docking system. The maiden flight of the Soyuz MS is currently scheduled for June 21, 2016, when it will deliver new Expedition 48 crew members to the ISS consisting of Anatoli Ivanishin (Roscosmos), Takuya Onishi (JAXA), and Kathleen Rubins (NASA).
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.
Friday’s launch is the first crewed mission to the ISS this year and the 129th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft overall. Portions of the space station have been in orbit since 1998 and the multi-national facility, which has some 16 different countries working together, is currently scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2024.
Video courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center
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