Expedition 44 crew launches to Space Station
A Russian Soyuz-FG rocket successfully lifted off from the launch pad 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan. The launch vehicle is carrying the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft, heading to the International Space Station (ISS ) with three Expedition 44 crew members. The lift off occurred as scheduled, at 5:02 p.m. EDT (21:02 GMT) Wednesday, July 22 (3:02 a.m. local time Thursday, July 23).
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA ) are on their way to the orbital station on a “fast rendezvous” route. This option means that the trip will last six hours, and the spacecraft will make four orbits around Earth. In opposition to a two-day rendezvous routine, which is more economical in terms of propellant use, the “fast rendezvous” route provides a shorter and less stressful journey for the astronauts.
Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos ) started to use this fast rendezvous scheme in 2012. The location of Russian ground tracking stations necessitated the change. The rendezvous and docking procedures over the Russian control centers required a four-orbit flight. Under this system, a spacecraft initiates maneuvers almost immediately after orbit insertion.
The crew arrived at Baikonur on July 10. Afterward, they headed to the test and training complex where final preparations for the flight were taking place. They have completed all their launch preparations – undergoing suit fit and leak checks, making three visits to their Soyuz for simulations and inspections, participating in final procedure reviews and training sessions.
“It ain’t Cocoa Beach but isn’t a bad place to spend our last few days on Earth!” Lindgren commented about the Baikonur Space Center.
The launch, initially scheduled for May 26, was postponed due to the loss of the Russian Progress M-27M cargo craft. As a result of the delay, Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft spent several weeks in a storage mode before resuming launch preparations. For the crew members, the delay of their launch came when they were in the midst of their final training and exam sessions at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC ).
The countdown began eight hours prior to the ten-second launch window. Earlier, on Monday, July 20, the Soyuz-FG rocket was transported from the assembly, integration, and test building to the launch complex where it was raised to a vertical position by the Transporter-Erector that had supported it until the booster was secured on the pad. With Soyuz standing at the pad, engineers conducted a series of checkouts of the launch vehicle, and the State Commission gave the mission on Wednesday a “green light” for launch. As usual, the rocket also received the traditional blessing by an Orthodox priest.
Two minutes after the launch, the rocket’s strap-on booster separated as planned. At T+4:45 minutes, the core stage shut down and separated from the rocket. Then the third stage ignited, which shut itself down four minutes later after completing its task. The spacecraft separation occurred at exactly 8 minutes and 48 seconds into the flight. The Soyuz TMA-17M was successfully inserted into orbit just over 124 miles (200 kilometers) above the Earth where it deployed its solar panels as well as the KURS Antenna. From this point, the mission was handed over to the Mission Control Center in Moscow.
Wednesday’s nearly nine-minute ride to orbit went flawlessly and the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft is currently chasing the ISS to perform an automated docking to the Space Station’s Rassvet module at 10:46 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 22 (02:46 GMT Thursday, July 23). Hatch opening is scheduled for around 12:25 a.m. EDT (04:25 GMT) Thursday, July 23. Expedition 44 Commander Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos, as well as Flight Engineers Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos, will greet the newly arrived trio.
Meanwhile, waiting for the newcomers, Kelly worked throughout Monday primarily on station life-support maintenance after some plant photography. He was assisted early on Tuesday by Padalka as he conducted ultrasound scans on his leg for the Sprint exercise study. Kelly later watered plants for the Veg-01 botany study, then worked on the MERLIN science freezer/incubator. Padalka also worked on Progress resupply ship cargo transfers and inventory updates. Kornienko studied cell cultivation for the Kaskad biology study before moving on to radiation research for the Matryeshka-R BUBBLE experiment.
The new crew will remain aboard the ISS until late December. Kelly and Kornienko, who have been aboard since March 27, will return to Earth in March 2016 at the end of their one-year mission. Padalka, who also has been aboard since March 27, will return to Earth in September, leaving Kelly in command of Expedition 45.
Together, the six crew members will continue the several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science currently underway and scheduled to take place aboard humanity’s only current orbital outpost.
The backup crew for the Soyuz TMA-17M flight consists of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra, and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Timothy Peake.
The Soyuz-FG rocket is 162 ft. (49.5 meters) tall, weighing 305 metric tons at liftoff, and is 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 of the launch vehicle consists of the Core Stage and four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters that provide 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. The Soyuz-FG model launch vehicle has successfully completed 49 flights so far.
Soyuz-TMA, developed and built by RKK Energia, is the newest 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.
Wednesday’s launch is the second manned mission to the Space Station this year and the 126th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft to date.
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.