A crew of three have successfully launched and docked at the International Space Station, with an on time launch of the newly upgraded Soyuz capsule, the Soyuz MS series. The three international crew members launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 01:36 UTC, on July 7th, which began the two-day rendezvous profile for this mission to the International Space Station.
The launch of the next crew occurred at break of dawn at the Cosmodrome, however the crew was preparing for launch many hours before the engines ignited and the Soyuz clearing the gantry to take flight to orbit. The international crew comprises of 1 American, 1 Russian and 1 Japanese astronaut. Anatoli Ivanishin is the Soyuz Commander for this flight and for the duration of the flight of this Soyuz in space. Accompanying him as Flight Engineers aboard Soyuz and at Station is NASA Astronaut Kathleen Rubin and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi, both flying for the first time to space and the International Space Station. All the crew have been training for launch for many years, and in the previous weeks leading to launch, all crew including backup crew were assessed and tested on their contingency and normal flight profiles before being cleared for launch.
At the 2 hour mark before launch, all three crew said farewell to solid ground, and was escorted to the lift which would bring them to their ride to space. At that time preflight checks were made and configuration for flight was executed within the capsule. A period of silence was then experience as preparation were complete and the steps that lead to the final and important steps were complete. As soon as the gantry was removed from around the rocket, the flight abort system was activated in the event of a pad emergency which could affect the safety of the crew onboard or if a rocket failure could occur within the timeframe between countdown, the initial launch and through most of the early flight trajectory. Ignition of the engines occurred at the T-17 seconds in the countdown, and at that time the engines were spooling up, providing health checks as the engines operated at higher thrusts. At the T-0 mark, the engines were at full thrust and the rocket cleared the retracted gantry and the crew began their 10 minute ride to space, the first crew of the new Soyuz MS series, which should see the Soyuz to its planned retirement for the new Russian Explorer Class capsule, expected to take flight in the 2020 timeframe.
The Soyuz MS Series is the last planned upgrade for the long lived Soyuz spacecraft and through these upgrades, the spacecraft has had many of its systems upgraded and lightened to support more KGs going into space. The majority of upgrades are seen more under the hood rather than those which may be clear to the uneducated eye of an onlooker. However these upgrades are not taking their first flight on this Soyuz, as Roscosmos has been trialing and testing these upgrades on the Cargo spacecraft, the Progress, which is a cargo variant of the crew carrying Soyuz spacecraft, however that variant is an expandable variant where no piece of the spacecraft survives the heat of reentry. These flew on the Progress MS01 and MS02 flights to station, and Progress MS01 successfully completed its mission a few days prior to the Soyuz MS-01 crew launch on the 7th July 2016.
The upgrades included new meteoroid shielding which protects wiring and the capsule itself from small yet fast traveling debris in space. Additionally there was a new Kurs-NA rendezvous system installed on the Soyuz MS Series to support docking at the International Space Station and the likelihood of this system being used on the planned Russian Space Station post-International Space Station days. In terms of power and power sourcing, the Soyuz was provided with an additional power bank with the addition of an extra battery, and in turn, the upgrades for the MS Series provide the Soyuz with improved and more efficient solar panels which provide the power to the batteries on board. There is also a newly re-arranged attitude control thrusters on the Soyuz MS Series which provide more control authority when docking and with maneuvers in space. With many more upgrades for the MS Series that are too long to list, the Soyuz will continue to fly until Russia has it’s new spacecraft up and running before placing the Soyuz spacecraft into retirement and into the history books for the longest flying spacecraft.
The launch of Soyuz MS-01 marked the 130th flight of a Soyuz vehicle since its service began in 1967.
With the 2-day flight to the station assisting in testing and verifying the new upgrades on Soyuz, the conclusion of the flight resulted in the spacecraft flying over the Space Station and aligning itself to its docking port before progressing to a hard dock (a secure connection between the spacecraft and the station). All progressed well and the Soyuz successfully docked to its port. The crew then verified that the spacecraft was in a stable configuration and that the power source was kept minimal in case of an emergency evacuation which would require the Soyuz to power up in a shorter period of time for crew safety. This crew is scheduled to stay on station for around 4 months, and it is very likely likely that Kathleen Rubin will assist an EVA to install the IDA which is currently scheduled to fly on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, its ninth on contract, which is currently scheduled to launch on the 18th July 2016.