A Russian Soyuz-U rocket with 5,249 pounds of long-awaited supplies for the International Space Station launched from the Kazakhstan-based Baikonur Cosmodrome Friday, after two prior supply missions failed.
The launch, controlled by the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, comes a week after another unmanned Falcon 9 rocket built by American commercial spaceflight firm SpaceX, carrying two tons of ISS supplies exploded shortly after liftoff in the skies above Cape Canaveral.
The Russian Soyuz rocket helped launch a Progress M-28M cargo ship, which is set to dock with the ISS on Sunday, and will was provide two and a half tons of oxygen, water, food and fuel to both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts on the space station.
NPR reported the situation aboard the ISS was “still far from a crisis” and that without the new supplies the astronauts could have survived until October. The astronauts also have a spacecraft docked to the ISS that could return them to Earth in the event of an emergency.
Typically, the ISS is stocked with six months of supplies, but at a recent press conference, NASA Space Station Program Office Manager Mike Suffredini said, “Today, we’re at, give or take, about four months.”
The Progress, which should dock with the ISS sometime on Sunday is also carrying an refueling module that is carrying 1,900 pounds of fuel, which can be transferred to the ISS through fluid connectors on the station’s docking ring.
According to a report on the about the Russian rocket posted on the NASA.gov site, the Progress will use a radar-based system to dock with the station, and that the rendezvous and docking are both automated. Once the spacecraft is within 150 meters of the ISS, both the Russian Mission Control Center just outside Moscow and the station crew will coordinate the approach and docking.
The station crew can also dock the Progress using a backup remote control docking system. The ISS orbits about 248 miles above Earth and circles the planet every 90 minutes. Astronauts spend most their time aboard the 357-foot station conducting experiments.
After the crew are able to transfer the supplies they need from the Progress, it will most likely be filled up with trash since flushing out trash into space can create unpredictable risks for the station. Twenty years ago a Russian crew tried flushing out trash from the Mir Space Station, but trash bags floated back to the station and creating potential hazards for area satellites.
“Once the Progress is filled with trash, usually a day before the launch of the next Progress vehicle, the Station crew closes the hatches and initiates the undocking process. Once the Progress has undocked, the vehicle’s thrusters are fired to maneuver it into an orbit that will send it into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up on re-entry over the Pacific Ocean,” Nasa.gov explains on a page that summarizes the Russian Progress Spacecraft.
Last Sunday’s SpaceX event marked the third ISS bound rocket explosion in the past year.
In April, a Russian cargo ship flown by Roscosmos burned up upon re-entry, and previously in October an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket turned into a fireball in a launch accident after launching from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have contracts to ship NASA cargo.