Progress MS-09 completes super fast 4-hour rendezvous with Space Station

by Chris Gebhardt

The long sought attempt at launching a Russian Progress resupply vehicle to the International Space Station and having it rendezvous with the orbital complex after just two and a half orbits and just under 4 hours in space is being attempted.  Roscosmos launched the Progress MS-09 craft at 17:51:33 EDT (2151:33 UTC) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with docking to the Space Station scheduled at 21:31 EDT (0131 UTC on 10 July) – just 3 hours 40 minutes after launch.

Progress MS-09 – fast-track rendezvous:

Overall, this was Roscosmos’ third attempt to launch a Progress resupply vehicle to the International Space Station and have it dock in just three and a half hours.  Previous attempts to execute such a maneuver were planned for the Progress MS-07 and MS-08 missions.

Both of those missions, however, had their launches scrubbed with just seconds remaining in their countdowns, thus missing the critical ISS ground track alignment with the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site and preventing a fast-tracked rendezvous from taking place.

This alignment between the ground track of the International Space Station and the launch site is what permits such a fast-track orbital rendezvous – that coupled with the upgraded Progress MS-series vehicles’ ability to quickly confirm their orbital insertion parameters with a downrange tracking station installed at the newly built Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia.

This ground track alignment with the launch site is not a random occurrence but rather one that is carefully planned for by the International Space Station Program.  For this particular fast track rendezvous attempt, the International Space Station’s orbit was reboosted on 23 June by the Progress MS-08 spacecraft’s thrusters – a reboost designed to specifically align the Station with the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the rapid-fire launch and docking attempt.

As with the other fast track rendezvous attempts, the reboost and phasing alignment of the Space Station with the Baikonur Cosmodrome is only available for this launch day.  A scrub to today’s instantaneous launch of Progress MS-09 would have resulted in the craft having to fly a two-day, 36 orbit phasing profile to the ISS on a realigned launch date later this week.

Progress MS-09 vehicle lifted off atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 17:51:33 EDT (2151:33 UTC) on 9 July – which was 03:51:33 local time on 10 July.

At the time of launch, the International Space Station was just to the southwest of the launch site, tracking northeast, in an orientation that will place Progress MS-09 just ahead of the scientific outpost in the same orbital plane once the Progress reached orbit.

Location of the International Space Station at the time of Progress MS-09’s scheduled launch today. (Credit: GoISSWatch app & GoSoftWorks)

Progress MS-09’s total powered launch lasted for 8 minutes 45 seconds, at which point the Soyuz 2.1a’s third stage shut down and Progress was inserted into orbit.  Just 1 hour 24 minutes after liftoff, Progress’ onboard computers started the automated rendezvous sequence.

Ten minutes after the start of automated rendezvous, the International Space Station maneuvered into its docking attitude and then transferred all maneuvering operations from the United States Operating Segment (USOS) to the Russian control section.  This occurred 2 hours 7 minutes after Progress’ launch and just 1 hour 40 minutes ahead of Progress MS-09’s docking to the orbital outpost.

The Station’s Kurs docking navigation system in the Zvezda Service Module was activated shortly thereafter, as was the Progress’ Kurs system.  With Progress MS-09 at a distance of 45 km (28 miles), control teams in Mission Control Moscow (MCC-M) validated Progress/Station range data through the Kurs system just over 1 hour prior to docking and just 2 hours 43 minutes after Progress MS-09’s launch.

Another Kurs test occurred once Progress closed to within 15 km (9 miles) of the Station.  Shortly thereafter, the ISS crew deactivated the outpost’s ham radio and power up the TORU (Teleoperated Mode of Control) VHF-2 system.

A Progress MS-series vehicle approaches the International Space Station for docking. (Credit: NASA)

TORU is the manual docking system that would be used by the Russian crew of the Space Station to manually dock Progress MS-09 should its automated docking system fail for some reason.  The Station’s side of the TORU system was fully activated by the time Progress MS-09 is 45 minutes away from docking and at a distance from the ISS of 9 km – which occurred just 3 hours 2 minutes after launch.

Progress MS-09’s TURO was fully activated 11 minutes later – at the same time that the US crew of the Station verified that all Station EVA communications equipment and the SpaceX Dragon’s CUCU (CRS UHF Communication Unit) are inhibited to prevent communications interference with Progress’ automated rendezvous system.

Progress MS-09 then begin its ISS flyaround to properly align itself with its docking port on the Nadir (earth-facing) side of the Pirs docking compartment.  Once aligned, Progress MS-09 held its position relative to the ISS (Stationkeeping) 3 hours 34 minutes after launch and just 13 minutes before scheduled docking.

Stationkeeping lasted for about three minutes; however, past Progress missions can routinely hold for much shorter periods.

Once given a “go” to proceed from MCC-M, Progress MS-09’s computer pulsed the craft’s thrusters to begin final approach and docking.

Location of the ISS and Progress MS-09 over the Tasman Sea at the expected time of docking, just 3 hours 48 minutes after launch. (Credit: GoISSWatch app & GoSoftWorks)

Docking occurred at 21:31 EDT on Monday, 9 July (0131 UTC on 10 July).

As soon as the Station registers contact between the two craft, the ISS’s computers command the Station into free drift, inhibiting all ISS attitude control and allowing the relative forces and motions of docking between the two vehicles to dampen out.

Once those motions are no longer present, latching hooks are driven to form a hard-dock between Progress MS-09 and the Station.

Progress MS-09 is delivering 2,567 kg (5,659 lb) of supplies to the Station, including 530 kg (1,168 lb) of propellant, 52 kg (114 lb) of oxygen and air, 420 kg (926 lb) of water, and 1,565 kg (3,450 lb) of dry cargo.

Even without these new supplies, Station is extremely well-provisioned.  The current limiting consumable is food, which without Progress MS-09 is currently stocked through at least December 2018 (not counting other resupply crafts scheduled throughout the rest of the year).

With Progress MS-09, that food consumable limit will be increased by 1.5 months, taking the limiting consumable out to mid-January 2019.

In all, Progress MS-09 (spacecraft No. 439) is the ninth in the new line of Progress spacecraft, the 161st Progress mission since the program began in 1978 for resupply efforts of the Salyut 6 space station, and the 72nd Progress mission to the ISS, counting the two Progress flights that were not designated as resupply missions because they delivered modules to the Station.

One of those two Progress non-resupply flights occurred in 2001, when a modified Progress delivered the Pirs docking compartment – a module of the Station that Progress MS-09 is currently scheduled to remove for a destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in January 2019 to make room for Russia’s Nauka science laboratory.

Including this flight, 72 Progress missions have launched to ISS to date, with Progress MS-09 (or Progress 70 as it is known to NASA) being the 69th attempt of a Progress family vehicle to successfully reach the Station following the Progress 44 launch failure in August 2011, the Progress 59 launch mishap in April 2015, and the Progress 65 launch failure in December 2016.

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