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Russian cargo ship takes fast track to the space station

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Aug 2, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Russia's unmanned Progress supply ship launched last night and arrived at the International Space Station at 9.18pm EDT (1.18 GMT, August 2), less than 6 hours after launch. 

The established launch to docking profile for the Progress spacecraft is 34 orbits - taking about two days. However, on this occasion a much quicker flight consisting of just four orbits before its rendezvous with the ISS was used to test a fast lane trajectory that may be used on future Soyuz human missions to the station.

The Progress M-16M supply ship was lifted to orbit by a Soyuz-U rocket that launched at 3.35 EDT (19.35 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The supply ship is carrying nearly 2 tonnes of propellant, as well as oxygen and air, water and 2.8 tonnes of supplies, spare parts and experiment hardware.

Aboard the space station, Commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineers Sergei Revin and Yuri Malenchenko monitored the approach and docking of the cargo freighter. The other three Expedition 32 crew - flight engineers Suni Williams, Joe Acaba and Aki Hoshide - captured the rendezvous on camera. 

The mission follows quickly on from the successful delivery of cargo by Japan's HTV-3 spacecraft which berthed with the space station on July 28.

The automated docking, which uses a radar-based system called Kurs, was monitored by the Russian Mission Control Center located just outside Moscow and by the astronauts aboard the space station. The spacecraft docked with the ISS's Pirs docking compartment, replacing another cargo ship, Progress 47, which undocked on Monday 30 July. Progress 47 is still in orbit and will remain so whilst engineering tests are carried out. The craft, which left the ISS loaded with trash - like all cargo ships leaving the ISS - will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean in a few weeks time.

Whilst the space freighter remains docked it can also be used to "reboost" the space station's orbit by firing its thrusters. This is required from time to time to boost the station's orbit or to maneouvre the ISS out of the path of space debris.

There are now three supply craft at the space station - Europe's third Automated Transfer Vehicle called Edoardo Amaldi, Japan's third HTV called Kounotori and now Russia's Progress 48.

Edoardo Amaldi is scheduled to leave the ISS in September. A further two ATVs are scheduled for 2013 and 2014. Europe provides the ATVs instead of cash as part of its contribution to the running costs of the space station.

In addition to these spacecraft, NASA are contracting with private companies Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX to deliver cargo. In May 2012, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft demonstrated successfully that it could berth with the ISS and deliver cargo. It is expected to begin the first of twelve contracted supplies in 2013. Orbital Sciences is scheduled to demonstrate its Cygnus spacecraft later this year and, provided it passes all the tests, will begin a contract for eight supply missions.