Russia launching fastest ship ever to space station

A Russian cargo ship launching Monday will attempt to reach the International Space Station in less than 4 hours.


An unpiloted Russian Progress cargo ship loaded with 2.8 tons of supplies and equipment was prepped for launch from Kazakhstan Monday on what could be the fastest trip ever to the International Space Station. The abbreviated two-orbit rendezvous space station would be a first for the program. 

The goal is to shorten the time it takes a crew to reach the station inside a cramped Soyuz ferry ship, a trip that traditionally took two days, or 34 orbits. The Russians already have tested a four-orbit six-hour rendezvous but the new technique would shave off even more time — a welcome relief to astronauts and cosmonauts.

The Russians attempted such a fast-track rendezvous on the two most recent Progress launches but in both cases, delays were ordered because of unrelated issues in the final moments of the countdown. Because of complex orbital constraints — a variety of launch-day specific conditions must be met — both spacecraft eventually used more traditional two-day approaches.

With flight controllers hoping the third time would be the charm, the Progress MS-09/70P spacecraft was scheduled for launch at 5:51:34 p.m. EDT (GMT-4; 3:51 a.m. Tuesday local time) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

At the moment of launch, the International Space Station, streaking through space at nearly five miles per second, was expected to be just 370 miles to the southwest of Baikonur.

By the time the Progress spacecraft separated from its upper stage booster eight minutes and 45 second after takeoff, the lab complex was expected to be 1,004 miles ahead with both spacecraft in the same orbital plane. The carefully planned geometry was required to set-up the fast-track rendezvous.

If all goes well, the automated Progress will catch up with its quarry after a series of carefully timed rendezvous rocket firings to adjust the supply ship’s altitude, gliding to a docking at the station’s Earth-facing Pirs module around 9:39 p.m. — less than four hours after launch.

On board: 1,168 pounds of propellant to help maintain the station’s orbit, 3,450 pounds of dry cargo, crew supplies and spare parts, 114 pounds of oxygen and air and 926 pounds of water.

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