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Pillar of light: Soyuz MS-03 crew en route to space station

Expedition 50 Soyuz MS-03 Launch

The Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome with three Expedition 50 crew members. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

On a clear and cold Kazakh morning, three space flyers launched atop a Soyuz rocket in their Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft on a two-day flight bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The trio will spend about six months in space.

Soyuz MS-03 crew before getting into Soyuz

Soyuz MS-03 crew. (Hover for details) Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson launched to space at 2:20 a.m. local Kazakh time on November 18 (3:20 p.m. EST / 20:20 GMT on Nov. 17) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The three will orbit Earth some 34 times before catching up with the ISS. Docking with the outpost is planned for about 5 p.m. EST (22:00 GMT) Nov. 19 at the Rassvet module.

Once on board the ISS, they will join Expedition 50 commander and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough as well as Russian flight engineers Andrei Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov, who have been aboard the outpost since mid-October in Soyuz MS-02.

The crew departed the Cosmonaut Hotel at 9:20 a.m. EST (14:00 GMT) and arrived at Site 254 some 45 minutes later. There they donned their Sokol launch and entry suits before meeting family members for the last time before heading spaceward for six months.

Meanwhile, at 10:20 a.m. EST (15:20 GMT), the fueling of the Soyuz rocket began.

At 12:20 p.m. EST (17:20 GMT), the trio boarded a bus and departed for the launch pad, arriving there some 20 minutes later. Temperatures at the launch pad were hovering around 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius).

Ten minutes later, they rode the elevator up to the Soyuz spacecraft at the top of the rocket to get strapped in. Once that was completed and the hardware tested one final time, the hatch was closed and leak checks began.

Finally, starting at 2:35 p.m. EST (19:25 GMT) the pad service structure and clamshell gantry service towers began to lower.

The Launch

Pillar of light.

Pillar of light. (Hover for details) Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

In the minutes before liftoff, the rocket and spacecraft were transferred to internal power, and umbilicals began to disconnect. At 3:20 p.m. EST (20:20 GMT), the Soyuz rocket’s engines ignited and began to throttle to maximum thrust before latches on the launch pad released, allowing the whole stack to rise into the cold night sky.

The Soyuz rocket is 162 feet (49.5 meters) tall and comprises two stages. The first stage, also called the core stage, is 69 feet (21.1 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.95 meters) at its widest. It was powered by a single RD-108A engine, which burned for around 280 seconds.

Strapped to the side of the first stage for the first 118 seconds of the launch were four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters. Each was 64.3 feet (19.6 meters) long and 8.8 feet (2.68 meters) wide. Once jettisoned, the core stage burned for another minute before separating, allowing the second stage to take over the flight.

Stage separation took place at an altitude of 105 miles (169 kilometers) while traveling more than 2.2 miles (3.6 kilometers) per second. The 21.9-feet (6.7-meter) long second stage, powered by a single RD-0110 engine, burned for another six minutes before it too cut off as planned, placing the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft and its trio of space flyers in orbit.

A few minutes later, the spacecraft and second stage separated and the two solar panels on the side of the Soyuz deployed. Over the next couple days, a number of burns will fine-tune the spacecraft’s path to the ISS.

Soyuz MS-03 is the third of the MS variant of the storied Russian capsule. This was the 132nd launch of any Soyuz since 1967. It was the 86th crewed launch to the outpost and the 181st overall since the Zarya module launched in 1998.

The station should see another Russian visitor sometime early next month (December) when the Russian Federal Space Agency plans on launching the Progress MS-04 cargo freighter to the orbiting laboratory.

After the flight of Progress MS-04, there is only one other scheduled launch to the International Space Station, that of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) HTV-6 automated cargo vessel. As the name implies, this will be the sixth flight of an HTV cargo freighter and it is slated to fly to the space station atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB launch vehicle.

When it flies, the mission will get its start from the Tanegashima Space Center located off the southern coast of Japan. Much like Progress, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, the HTV will deliver equipment, cargo, and crew supplies to the orbiting laboratory.

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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