Russian lab module set for launch to space station Wednesday

Russia’s Nauka module undergoes launch preparations at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos

A Russian science module in development for more than 20 years is set for liftoff Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on top of a Proton rocket, kicking off an eight-day flight to the International Space Station to boost the lab’s capacity for research.

The Nauka module is buttoned up on top of a Russian Proton rocket for liftoff at 10:58:25 a.m. EDT (1458:25 GMT) Wednesday from Baikonur, a historic launch base on the Kazakh steppe that has been the departure point for all the Russian space station elements.

Launch is scheduled for 7:58 p.m. local time at Baikonur, about a half-hour before sunset.

The three-stage, liquid-fueled rocket will take off from the Site 200 launch complex at Baikonur and head northeast to line up with the space station’s orbital plane.

Six RD-276 main engines, burning a toxic combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, will power the 197-foot-tall (60-meter) Proton rocket off the pad with 2.5 million pounds of thrust.

The Proton’s first stage will shut down about two minutes into the mission and jettison to fall in a drop zone northeast of Baikonur.

The rocket’s second stage will burn until about five-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The Proton will release its payload shroud around the same time, revealing the Nauka module after climbing into the airless environment of space.

Shutdown of the Proton’s third stage is scheduled for T+plus 9 minutes, 28 seconds, followed by separation of the Nauka module at T+plus 9 minutes, 40 seconds.

Nauka’s on-board propulsion system will adjust the module’s orbit over the next week, setting the stage for docking with the International Space Station on July 29 at 9:25 a.m. EDT (1325 GMT).

The bus-sized Nauka research module — also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, or MLM — has been in development for more than 20 years, originally as a backup for Russia’s Zarya module, the first element of the space station to launch in 1998. Russia said in 2004 that the backup to Zarya would be converted into a lab module for launch in 2007.

But delays have kept the Russian lab on the ground for years. Engineers at Energia, the prime contractor for Russia’s human spaceflight program, found flaws in the module’s propulsion system in 2013. The module was returned to Khrunichev, its manufacturer, for lengthy repairs that delayed Nauka’s launch several more years.

Nauka, which means “science” in Russian, will be the largest Russian element to join the International Space Station since the launch of the Zvezda service module in 2000. Designed to support scientific experiments, the module measures about 43 feet (13 meters) long and weighs about 44,500 pounds (20.2 metric tons) fully fueled for launch.

The last Russian pressurized element of any size launched to the space station was the Rassvet docking module, which was delivered by a NASA space shuttle in 2010.

A Proton rocket stands on its launch pad at Baikonur for liftoff with the Nauka module. Credit: Roscosmos

The Nauka module carries the European Robotic Arm, which was completed 15 years ago to await an opportunity to fly to the space station.

Full-scale development of the European Robotic Arm began in 1996, and the arm has been in storage more than a decade. Originally planned for launch on a NASA space shuttle, the 37-foot-long (11.3-meter) arm will join Canadian and Japanese robotic manipulators outside the space station, assisting with the movement of external payloads and helping astronauts with spacewalks.

The launch plan for the robotic arm changed, and the European Space Agency said it was ready to ship the 37-foot-long (11.3-meter) arm to Russia in 2006 for installation on the new Russian MLM science element for launch on a Proton rocket. But the robotic arm was placed in storage in Europe after problem during development of the Nauka module.

After launch, the Nauka module will dock with the nadir, or Earth-facing, port of the space station’s Russian Zvezda service module. That location has been occupied by the Russian Pirs docking compartment since 2001.

In preparation for docking of the Nauka module, a Russian Progress supply ship will carry the Pirs module away from the space station Friday. The Progress spacecraft and Pirs docking compartment are scheduled to detach from the space station at 9:15 a.m. EDT (1315 GMT) Friday, setting up for a destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean about four hours later

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