Russia launches supply ship on two-day trip to space station

A Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the Progress MS-18 supply ship. Credit: Roscosmos

A Russian Progress cargo freighter loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of crew supplies, fuel, water, and air lifted off Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and rode a Soyuz launcher into orbit, the first leg of a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The unpiloted Progress MS-18 cargo ship launched at 8:00:32 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0000:32 GMT Thursday) from Baikonur, the historic launch base leased from Kazakhstan by the Russian government.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket ignited its kerosene-fueled engines and climbed away from the Site 31 launch complex, heading northeast to line up with the space station’s orbital corridor.

The rocket jettisoned its four strap-on boosters two minutes into the flight, then released its nose shroud. The Soyuz core stage shut down and separated nearly five minutes after liftoff, leaving the rocket’s third stage RD-0110 engine to finish the job of injecting the Progress MS-18 supply ship into orbit shy shy of the mission’s nine-minute mark.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, confirmed the cargo freighter reached orbit and unfurled its power-generating solar panels to power its journey to the space station.

Burns using the 23.6-foot-long (7.2-meter) spacecraft’s small rocket thrusters will allow the Progress to match the orbit of the space station, setting up for a radar-guided rendezvous and docking with the Russian segment’s Zvezda service module at 9:34 p.m. EDT Friday (0134 GMT Saturday).

The Progress spacecraft is taking a two-day flight to the space station, and not the usual three- or six-hour trip, because the orbiting complex was not in the right position relative to the Baikonur launch base to make the fast-track rendezvous possible for Wednesday’s launch opportunity.

Launching a crew or cargo mission on a quick rendezvous to the station requires the outpost to be nearly directly overhead the launch pad when a rocket takes off.

The Progress MS-18 spacecraft will link up with the rear docking port on Zvezda. With the help of cosmonauts on the station, Russian engineers have traced a small air leak on the station to the transfer compartment leading to Zvezda’s rear port.

The compartment has been sealed from the rest of the space station since the departure of a previous Progress spacecraft from the rear docking port in April. But cosmonauts will re-open the compartment to unload cargo delivered by the Progress MS-18 spacecraft.

The mission is the 79th Russian Progress supply craft to launch toward the International Space Station since 2000.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said the Progress MS-18 spacecraft will deliver around 5,377 pounds (2,439 kilograms) of supplies to the station.

Russian ground teams loaded 3,327 pounds (1,509 kilograms) of dry cargo into the Progress freighter’s pressurized compartment, according to Roscosmos. The space agency said the mission carries 1,036 pounds (470 kilograms) of propellant to refuel Zvezda module’s propulsion system, 926 pounds (420 kilograms) of fresh drinking water, and 88 pounds of compressed gas to replenish the space station’s breathing air.

Russia’s Progress MS-18 supply ship inside a processing facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

The launch of the Progress MS-18 supply ship follows the relocation of the Progress MS-17 cargo craft last week from one space station docking port to another. Progress MS-17 moved to a docking port on Russia’s Nauka lab module, the newest element of the space station, to help perform leak checks of the module’s propulsion system before it is used to control the lab’s orientation, or attitude.

Progress MS-17 will undock from the space station next month to clear the way for arrival of another new Russian module, named Prichal, set for launch from Baikonur on Nov. 24.

Meanwhile, NASA is gearing up to launch four astronauts to the space station Sunday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew will ride a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the station to begin a six-month expedition in orbit, replacing an outgoing team of astronauts scheduled to return to Earth in early November.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.