Soyuz TMA-09M docks to ISS following short cut rendezvous

by Chris Bergin, Pete Harding

A three member crew set sail for a speedy trip to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday, following launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Riding in their Russian Soyuz TMA-09M, Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg of NASA and ESA’s Luca Parmitano successfully docked with the Station just six hours later – several minutes ahead of schedule, setting a new launch-to-ISS docking record.

Soyuz TMA-09M:

The trio launched at 4:31 pm EDT (2:31 am Kazakh time, May 29), with their Soyuz-FG carrier rocket tasked with sending the Soyuz TMA-09M into its initial orbit.

Soyuz TMA-09M CrewUnder the command of cosmonaut Yurchikhin, the Russian veteran marked his fourth mission to the ISS, following his debut ride to the orbital outpost on Shuttle Atlantis during her STS-112 mission.

Joining the Commander is Karen Nyberg, who was selected as an astronaut in 2000. Nyberg previously flew in space as a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Discovery on STS-124 in 2008.

Rounding out the crew is Expedition 36/37 flight engineer Luca Parmitano. The Italian native will conduct maintenance tasks, replace a camera mounted on Japan’s Kibo module and retrieve science payloads. One of his spacewalks will also prepare for the arrival of Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory

Normally, Soyuz vehicles take two days to arrive at the ISS. However, following the Soyuz TMA-08M six hours rendezvous, the well practiced procedure – that was initially demonstrated on recent Progress resupply missions – Soyuz TMA-09M was the second crewed vehicle to take the short cut option.

Fast RNDZ - via L2The desire to dock to the ISS after just six hours stems from the fact that spending two days in the cramped interior of the Soyuz along with two other crewmates is known to be a stressful and uncomfortable time for astronauts and cosmonauts, many of whom are suffering from symptoms of space sickness at the same time.

Thus, being able to go from the ground to the ISS in a single day will be a big advantage to Soyuz crews.

Such a fast rendezvous was never attempted before as it requires extremely precise orbital adjustments from the ISS, and extremely precise orbital insertion by the Soyuz-FG booster, which was only deemed possible following a study conducted last year, which showed that such accuracy was achievable with the existing Soyuz-FG booster and modernized Soyuz TMA-M series spacecraft.

Following liftoff and successful orbital insertion shortly thereafter, Soyuz TMA-09M immediately performed its first two engine burns on its first orbit of the Earth, which were pre-programmed into the Soyuz’s on-board computer prior to launch.

On the second orbit, actual orbital parameters were uplinked from a Russian Ground Site (RGS), which allowed for a further eight rendezvous burns to be performed more precisely over the next five hours of flight.

During this time, the Soyuz crew were able to unstrap from their Kazbek couches and enter the Orbital Module (BO) to stretch their legs and use the bathroom facilities. However, due to the extremely tight schedule and high workload, they did not have time to take off their Sokol launch and entry suits, although they were able to take off their suit gloves and open their helmets.

Soyuz Docking, via L2Docking to the Earth-facing Rassvet module of the space station occurred at 10:10 pm EDT – seven minutes ahead of schedule – with Russian controllers noting they achieved a new launch-to-ISS docking record for the crewed vehicle.

This was followed by the opening of the hatches between the Soyuz and ISS at 11:55pm EDT, at which point Nyberg, Yurchikhin and Parmitano were greeted by Expedition 36 Commander Pavel Vinogradov, Flight engineer Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA – who have been aboard the station since late March.

Nyberg, Yurchikhin and Parmitano will remain aboard the station until mid-November. Cassidy, Vinogradov and Misurkin will return to Earth in mid-September, leaving Yurchikhin as the Expedition 37 commander.

Nyberg, Yurchikhin and Parmitano will remain in orbit until mid-November and will be joined in September by three additional crew members, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Federal Space Agency and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins.

Visiting Vehicle Evaluations:

An Ariane 5 ECA is set to loft the next Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-4) to the ISS early next month, followed by the next Russian Progress in July. Japan’s HTV cargo ship will set sail in early August.

Evaluations are taking place into the upcoming Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions, with Orbital’s Cygnus first set to validate its capabilities via its debut launch on an Antares launch vehicle in mid-September.

Cygnus berthing with ISSA successful OrB-D mission will allow Orbital to press ahead to the first CRS flight, known as OrB-1, with Cygnus aiming to return to the ISS at the end of the year.

However, ongoing discussions are taking place relating to a potential conflict with the next SpaceX Dragon, which has already slipped into December. CRS-3/SpX-3 is facing delays due to what sources claim are “numerous problems” with the new Falcon 9 V1.1 launch vehicle, which is due to launch two payloads before it sends Dragon to the Station.

With CRS-3 slipping, one of the CRS missions will have to move to change its docked period to Node-2 Nadir between January 26 to February 25, 2014, L2 sources claim. Providing Orbital’s OrB-D mission proceeds as planned, allowing for a December launch of OrB-1, along with what may be additional slips to CRS-3, it is likely Dragon will have to move to the 2014 slot.

(Images: via NASA, ESA and L2).

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