Modernized Russian cargo ship heads for space station

Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Russia’s Progress supply ship got an upgrade with a successful cargo launch to the International Space Station on Monday.

The Progress MS spacecraft enclosed within the Soyuz rocket’s nose shroud lifted off at 0844:39 GMT (3:44:39 a.m. EST) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, beginning a two-day chase of the International Space Station set to conclude with an orbital linkup at 1031 GMT (5:31 a.m. EST) Wednesday.

The cargo capsule blasted off from the snow-covered cosmodrome on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket, a configuration of the venerable Soyuz launcher featuring a digital flight control system and a modified third stage.

The supply ship’s launch marks the first flight of the Soyuz-2.1a with a Progress spacecraft since an April launch failure Russian investigators blamed on the the botched separation of the logistics carrier. Engineers concluded a design flaw led to out-of-bounds loads that led to the structural failure of the third stage.

The problem is apparently only a concern on Soyuz-2.1a launches with Progress cargo carriers. Flights of the modernized rocket with other satellites have not encountered the same phenomenon.

Russian dispatched Progress cargo ships in July and October on an older version of the Soyuz rocket without incident.

The Progress MS spaceship had no trouble with its trip into orbit Monday, and a NASA spokesperson confirmed it was released into orbit as scheduled less than 10 minutes after departing Baikonur. The craft’s solar panels and navigation antennas extended as planned moments after separating from the Soyuz rocket’s third stage, the spokesperson said.

The automated Progress MS spacecraft is the first Russian supply ship to test several upgrades that engineers plan to eventually fly on crewed Soyuz capsules.

The changes include an upgraded command and telemetry system, new digital communications equipment to improve video links with the space station during its rendezvous with the outpost, and a backup motion control system for the Progress spacecraft’s manual control system, which cosmonauts on the station would use to take over if its autopilot failed during docking.

The Progress MS series of spacecraft also carry an improved Kurs rendezvous radar, which feeds range closure rate data to the capsule’s computers during approach to the space station. A radio link with Russian data relay satellites in geostationary orbit is also installed on the new generation of Progress vehicles, allowing communications between the spacecraft and ground controllers even when it is flying outside the range of ground stations on Russian territory, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

The spaceship’s navigation system, space debris shielding and spotlight also see improvements, along with the mechanism that firmly latches the cargo capsule to the space station after docking.

But the Progress spaceship launched Monday bears little difference from previous Progress cargo spacecraft in outward appearance.

The Progress supply ship is an uncrewed variant of the human-rated Soyuz capsule, which will fly with the same upgrades for the first time with astronauts and cosmonauts aboard in June.

Russian managers delayed Monday’s launch a month from Nov. 21 to finish reviews into the April launch failure and ensure the Progress MS mission would not encounter the same issues.

The Progress MS mission, also known as Progress 62P in the space station program’s flight sequence, will deliver 5,753 pounds of supplies — about 2.6 metric tons — to the space station’s Expedition 46 crew.

The cargo manifest includes 1,918 pounds of propellant to be pumped into the space station’s Zvezda service module, 57 pounds of oxygen and 48 pounds of air to replenish the research lab’s atmosphere, 926 pounds of water, and 2,804 pounds of dry cargo, such as crew provisions, food, spare parts and experiments.

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