Russian science lab heads for International Space Station

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated July 22 with Pirs undocking delay.

A Proton rocket takes off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday with Russia’s Nauka science lab. Credit: Roscosmos

The International Space Station is set to receive its biggest expansion in more than a decade after the launch of a Russian research lab and a European robotic arm Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Nauka, or “science,” research module lifted on top of a Proton rocket Wednesday to kick off an eight-day pursuit of the space station, culminating in an automated docking with the orbiting outpost July 29.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, says the Nauka module has a mass of about 20.2 metric tons (44,500 pounds) and extends about 43 feet (13 meters) long. It’s the first large pressurized element to be permanently added to the space station since  2011, and will become one of the biggest modules at the complex.

The launch from Baikonur occurred at 10:58:25 a.m. EDT (1458:25 GMT; 7:58:25 p.m. local time), about a half-hour before sunset at the historic Russian-managed spaceport in Central Asia.

Rocketing away from Baikonur with 2.5 million pounds of thrust from six main engines, the liquid-fueled Proton launcher headed northeast to line up with the space station’s orbital plane.

The Proton’s first stage shut down two minutes into the flight and fall back to Earth downrange from Baikonur. The rocket’s second and third stages completed their burns to inject the Nauka module into a preliminary orbit between 123 and 233 miles (199 and 376 kilometers) in altitude, Roscosmos said.

Sources said Russian ground teams were evaluating issues on the Nauka module soon after its launch Wednesday, prompting managers to forego the mission’s first planned orbit adjustment burn. The issues were not expected to be a major concern for the module’s rendezvous and docking with the space station.

NASA confirmed the Nauka spacecraft, also called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, unfurled its solar arrays and deployed its Kurs navigation antenna soon after separation from the Proton third stage.

But Russian teams canceled the spacecraft’s first post-launch orbit adjustment burn a few hours after launch. It wasn’t immediately clear if the change to the rendezvous plan might affect the schedule for Nauka’s docking with the space station, which was set for July 29 at 9:25 a.m. EDT (1325 GMT).

The bus-sized Nauka research module 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 is the first pressurized module to be added to the space station since the arrival of the small Bigelow Expandable Activity Module in 2016. 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.

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 is set to carry the Pirs module away from the space station. The Progress spacecraft and Pirs docking compartment were 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.

But sources said Thursday the undocking of the Progress spacecraft with the Pirs module was delayed one day to Saturday, presumably as a precaution as Russian engineers assess the status of the newly-launched Nauka spacecraft.

Diagram of Russia’s Nauka module. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Between undocking of the Pirs module and the arrival of Nauka next week, ground teams plan to inspect the nadir docking port on the Zvezda module using cameras on the the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm. The inspection will ensure there’s no debris or obstructions on the docking mechanism, which was last used for a docking when Pirs linked up with the station in 2001.

If teams find any problems, cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov could head outside the space station on a spacewalk next week to clean up the docking system.

After docking of the Nauka module, Russian cosmonauts plan a series of up to 11 spacewalks later this year and early next year to outfit the exterior new lab element.

Once fully operational, Nauka will accommodate dockings of Progress resupply ships, Soyuz crew capsules, and Russia’s new Prichal node module later this year.

Inside Nauka, Russian cosmonauts will install and activate scientific experiments, prepare a new oxygen generation system for operation, set up a new toilet, and ready a new sleeping compartment for an extra Russian crew member on the space station.

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

This diagram shows the location of the Nauka laboratory module at the European Robotic Arm after docking at the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

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.

“ERA is a bit different than the other manipulators that already on the station,” said Philippe Schoonejansm, ESA’s ERA project manager. “It can be fully preprogrammed in advance, which is helpful. It can be operated from external control panel, which the others do not have. So even when you’re doing a spacewalk, you can control ERA by just seeing and operating this control panel. But also it can operated from inside using only a laptop, so it doesn’t need any joysticks.”

The European Robotic Arm can walk across the Russian segment of the space station. ESA says it’s capable of carrying a load of more than 17,000 pounds, or 8 metric tons, with a precision of one-fifth of an inch (5 millimeters).

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

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who is currently living on the space station, will reform an initial health check of the robotic arm using a computer inside the complex. Then there will be a full motion checkout of the arm to verify it is ready for operation.

Schoonejansm said the firs operational use of the robotic arm will be to install a radiator and an equipment airlock on the Nauka module. ESA astronauts Matthias Maurer and Samantha Cristoforetti, scheduled for launch to the station late this year and early next year, will assist in that work.

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