Progress MS-20 docks to the International Space Station

by Joseph Navin

A Soyuz 2.1a rocket has launched Progress MS-20 resupply spacecraft from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Progress MS-20 then conducted a fast-track, two-orbit rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) before docking to the aft port on the Zvezda service module at approximately 13:02 UTC (09:02 a.m. EDT).

The mission is the 64th mission for the Soyuz 2.1a rocket (including its ST-A variant for Arianespace missions). It is the sixth mission for the launch vehicle in 2022, with Progress MS-20 marking the 81st Russian resupply flight to the ISS.

The spacecraft also goes by the designation Progress 81 by NASA.

Elements referencing Russia’s ongoing invasion and occupation of Ukraine have been placed on the Soyuz 2.1a for the Progress MS-20 mission.

The flags of the two breakaway states, known as the Luhansk and the Donetsk People’s Republics, were added to the rocket’s fairings.

Meanwhile, the word “Donbas” was placed on the second stage of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket. Donbas is the region in eastern Ukraine that has seen fighting between the armed forces of Ukraine and Russia since 2014. 

Pre-launch preparations:

The Progress MS-20 spacecraft departed the facility at the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia on June 24, 2021, and was transported to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by train.

Before departing for Baikonur, the resupply spacecraft underwent numerous tests, including electrical tests of various onboard components and activations of radio systems that are designed to be used for navigation along with rendezvous and docking.

In January 2022, a 20-car train arrived at Baikonur with components for the Soyuz 2.1a launch vehicle.

The stages — or “blocks” as they are known in the Russian space program — of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket were subsequently moved to the Site 112 facility at the cosmodrome.

The Blok-A core stage and four side-mounted boosters seen during final assembly of the Soyuz 2.1a carrier rocket for the Progress MS-20 mission. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Following this, the segments were put into temporary storage until assembly began. By May 19, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket minus its Blok-I upper stage and Progress payload was assembled inside the assembly building near-site 31/6.

Before encapsulation, the Progress MS-20 spacecraft was loaded with cargo, including a total of 599 kg of fuel, 420 liters of water, 40 kg of compressed nitrogen, and 1,458 kg of equipment for the Expedition 67 crew.

The spacecraft was also loaded with four CubeSats which include the Tsiolkovsky-Ryazan No. 1-2 and the YuZGU-55 No. 11-12. These CubeSats were developed by students from the Southwest State University in Kursk, Russia, and from the Ryazan Radio Engineering State University in Ryazan, Russia.

Both pairs of CubeSats will be deployed from the Russian segment of the ISS at a later date.

After encapsulation, the Progress MS-20 spacecraft was taken to the assembly building at Site 31 on May 29 where it was integrated with the rest of the Soyuz 2.1a launch vehicle.

On May 31, the Progress MS-20 spacecraft atop the Soyuz 2.1a launch vehicle was rolled out from the assembly building and arrived at the launch pad, Site 31/6. It was subsequently raised to vertical on the pad, and the two launch gantry towers were raised, surrounding the vehicle.


Before launch, the two gantry towers were lowered into the launch position.

After a 16-second ignition sequence, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket lifted off at 09:32:16 UTC (5:32:16 a.m. EDT) before a roll and pitch to the proper launch azimuth took it to a 51.6-degree inclination.

At liftoff, the engines on the rocket’s Blok-A core stage and four side-mounted boosters were firing.

Each of the four boosters — Blok-B, -V, -G, and -D — is powered by a single RD-107A engine, while the Blok-I stage of the rocket is powered by a single RD-108A engine. Both engines run on liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket-grade kerosene known as RP-1.

A Soyuz 2.1a rocket with the Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft lifts off from Site 31/6 at Baikonur, rolling onto its proper course to head for the International Space Station. (Credit: Roscosmos)

After the first two minutes of flight, the boosters separated in a formation known as the Korolev cross. The formation is named after Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet R-7 Semyorka ICBM from which the Soyuz 2.1a is derived.

After the launch vehicle passed through the dense levels of the atmosphere, both halves of the payload fairing separated, leaving Progress MS-20 exposed to the environment of space for the first time.

The next major flight event was the “hot-fire” staging of the Blok-A and Blok-I segments of the rocket. 

The Blok-I’s single RD-0110 engine ignited before the separation of the Blok-A stage. Seconds later, Blok-A’s engine shutdown, and the stage separated.

The Blok-I continued to ascend and inserted Progress MS-20 into its initial 200 km circular low Earth orbit. The spacecraft separated relatively quickly after orbit insertion, deploying its Kurs-NA docking equipment, the docking camera, both solar arrays, and other communications equipment immediately thereafter.

A Progress seen during docking in 2016. (Credit: NASA)

At this point, the spacecraft was in communications range with the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. Vostochny is the newest cosmodrome for Russia and one of three active launch sites controlled by Russia. The other two are Plesetsk and Baikonur.

Progress MS-20 then raised its orbit and target a rendezvous with the ISS three hours 30 minutes after launch — though Progress spacecraft are routinely known to be early for their docking. In this case, it was one minute early.

(Lead image: Soyuz 2.1a rocket with a Progress resupply craft – NASA TV).

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