Fourth Progress MS spacecraft to be launched to ISS
The Progress MS-04 cargo spacecraft is in final preparations for its upcoming flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, Dec. 1. The vehicle will be launched atop a Soyuz-U booster at 14:52 GMT (9:52 a.m. EST) from launch pad №1 (“Gagarin’s Start”), also known as LC-1/5, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Progress MS-04 (Progress 65 in NASA’s numbering system) is tasked with delivering about 2.5 metric tons of cargo to the ISS, crucial for maintaining crew operations aboard the station. The cargo includes food, clothing, medical supplies, and personal hygiene items as well as fuel, water, and compressed gases. The vehicle will remain attached to the station until late April 2017.
After launch, the spacecraft will take the standard two-day route to the ISS, aiming for docking with the station’s Zvezda Service Module at 16:43 GMT (11:43 a.m. EST) on Saturday, Dec. 3. The fast six-hour flight profile cannot be used by the Progress MS vehicle due to technical hurdles as Russia’s ground stations are not yet compatible with the command and control system of the upgraded Progress MS spacecraft.
Preparation for flight
Final preparations for the mission started on Nov. 17 when the state commission at Baikonur confirmed the readiness of the Progress MS cargo craft for filling with propellant components and compressed gases. These operations were completed on Nov. 22. The vehicle was then transported by rail to the spacecraft processing facility and installed onto a jig for further pre-launch processing.
The Progress MS capsule was mated to the launch vehicle’s adapter section on Nov. 24. One day later, the spacecraft passed the designer’s inspection and was encapsulated in the payload fairing. After these operations, the cargo craft was delivered to the launch vehicle integration and checkout facility for integration with the Soyuz-U booster.
On Nov. 28, the teams finished assembly of the rocket, and the Progress MS spacecraft was installed onto the launch vehicle’s upper stage. Afterward, the state commission cleared the Soyuz-U booster for the rollout and erection on the launch pad. The rocket’s rollout to the launch site took place on Nov. 29.
The Soyuz-U rocket will perform a short vertical climb after liftoff, and then it will head in a northeasterly direction, chasing the ISS. The rocket’s ride into orbit is planned to last about nine minutes. After orbital insertion, the spacecraft will deploy its navigational antennas and power-generating solar arrays, starting a two-day trek toward the orbital laboratory.
On its way to the ISS, the spacecraft is expected to conduct three rendezvous engine burns to correct its flight trajectory. Some two-and-a-half hours before docking, the vehicle will initiate its automated rendezvous sequence allowing it to approach the station.
Progress MS, which is manufactured by RKK Energia, 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.
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 new version 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.
So far, three missions of the Progress MS vehicle have been successfully completed, delivering a total of approximately 7.5 metric tons of cargo to the ISS. The first Progress MS spacecraft was launched into space on Dec. 21, 2015, by a Soyuz 2.1a rocket. The second craft in the series was sent into space on March 31, 2016, also by a Soyuz 2.1a booster. Progress MS-03 was the first mission of this upgraded spacecraft launched by a Soyuz-U rocket. It took to the skies on July 16, 2016.
After Progress MS-04, eight more orbital flights of this spacecraft are scheduled for 2016 to 2018 with Progress MS-05 currently targeted for Feb. 2, 2017. 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 the Progress spacecraft to the ISS and occasionally to launch military reconnaissance payloads.
The vehicle stands 167 feet (51.1 meters) tall with a main body 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).
Thursday’s launch will be the 19th orbital mission for Russia and the 11th liftoff from Baikonur this year. The country plans one more launch later this year, on Dec. 22, when a Proton-M rocket will blast off from Baikonur with the EchoStar 21 communications satellite.
Progress MS-04 is not the only cargo craft arriving at the ISS in December. On Dec. 9, a Japanese HTV-6 vehicle, also known as Kounotori 6, will be launched atop an H-IIB rocket to deliver supplies to the station. The spacecraft will dock with the orbital laboratory on Dec. 13.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.