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MLM Nauka to expand
the International Space Station

The Nauka Multi-purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, was designed to dock to the International Space Station, ISS, to give the outpost a plethora of new capabilities and to resume the assembly of the station's Russian Segment after a decade-long hiatus. In development for nearly a quarter of a century, the 20-ton Nauka will be Russia's largest spacecraft since the launch of the Zvezda Service Module to the ISS in 2000.

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The MLM Nauka module at a glance:

Spacecraft designation
MLM Nauka, 77KML
Launch vehicle
Proton-M, 8K82KM
Payload fairing
Payload adapter
Spacecraft prime developer
RKK Energia, Korolev, Russia
Spacecraft liftoff mass
20.257 tons
Mass in orbit when docked to ISS (with radiator, airlock and other add-on hardware)
24.2 tons
13.1 meters
Solar panels span
23.9 meters
Pressurized volume
70 cubic meters
Available volume for cargo storage
4.9 cubic meters
Available volume for scientific payloads
6 cubic meters
Available power supply for scientific payloads
up to 2.5 kilowatts
Launch site
Official life span
10 years

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TKS: Where Nauka came from?

The MLM Nauka module is a direct descendant of the heavy TKS transport spacecraft conceived in the mid-1960s at OKB-52 design bureau lead by Vladimir Chelomei for the Almaz military space station project. The TKS was originally intended to carry crews and cargo to the Almaz but eventually its FGB component was re-purposed as a space station expansion vehicle. The MLM Nauka is the 12th and last member of this legendary spacecraft family to fly.


From FGB-2 to MLM: Origin of the Nauka project (1998-2011)

The MLM multi-purpose module (a.k.a. FGB-2 or 77KML No. 17901) originated as a backup copy to the first element of the International Space Station -- the Zarya control module, which was launched in November 1998.


Development of the MLM in 2012

During 2012, the assembly of the MLM module was finally completed and in December it was shipped from GKNPTs Khrunichev rocket plant, RKZ, in Moscow to RKK Energia in Korolev for final tests before its planned trip to the Cosmodrome Baikonur for tests.


2013: MLM is hit with a contamination disaster

When the MLM/Nauka module was believed to be less than a year away from launch, engineers testing its systems made a startling discovery. The spacecraft's critical propulsion system turned out to be heavily contaminated with metallic dust. It was spread around the maze of pipelines, valves and combustion chambers during the "upgrades" of the spacecraft in the previous years.


2014: Russia considers scrapping troubled Nauka module

Faced with serious problems in preparing for launch their next big piece of the International Space Station, Russian engineers pondered leaving the ill-fated MLM/Nauka module behind and proceeding with the assembly of the Russian segment without this crucial element. The proposed architecture sans Nauka was found to be feasible but it would come at a high price.

2016 2015: Roskosmos re-commits to Nauka

After months of uncertainty, Roskosmos decided to jump-start the work on the MLM Nauka module in the hope of launching it within a couple of years.

2015 2016: Work on MLM module stalls again

In June 2016, RKK Energia issued a press-release saying that the company completed the manufacturing and testing of equipment for the interior of the module. At the same time, the head of the company was quoted as saying that the development of documentation and the installation of large pieces of hardware on the exterior of the spacecraft had entered the final stage. However, as of middle of September, all the work on the assembly of the MLM module had stalled again.


2017: Engineers begin tackling problems with MLM

At the beginning of 2017 it seemed that MLM could fly at the end of that year or in the first half of the next, finally resuming the assembly of the Russian segment of the ISS. However in March another nasty surprise hit the ill-fated spacecraft...


2018: MLM Nauka module postponed again

By the end of January 2018, sources at GKNPTs Khrunichev, the manufacturer of the MLM Nauka module, said that continuing repairs of the spacecraft would likely delay its shipment to the Baikonur launch site until the end of July 2018. As of October 2017, the module was expected to be rolled out on March 15, 2018.

2019: MLM Nauka inches toward launch (INSIDER CONTENT)

By 2019, all the efforts to repair original propellant tanks for the MLM-U Nauka module bound to the International Space Station, ISS, reached a dead end and Roskosmos had to make a final decision about its launch, before even more critical systems, such as engines, would run out of warranty as well.

2020: Nauka slips into 2021 (INSIDER CONTENT)

On January 1, 2020, a Twitter account, which is attributed to Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, posted an announcement stating that the MLM Nauka module will be shipped to Baikonur in March. That was at least a month-long delay from the delivery date promised by Rogozin around three months earlier.

Tank system for the MLM module

In the spring of 2017, Russian engineers approved a new plan to cleanse the propellant tanks of the MLM module of severe metallic dust contamination. It required a delicate surgery-like dissection of the tanks to cleanse them of dangerous contaminants, while avoiding damage to their irreplaceable parts.


Preparing Nauka at launch site (INSIDER CONTENT)

After two decades in assembly, Russia's MLM Nauka module finally came within months from the trip to its launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2020. However, it will take at least eight or nine months of careful tests and critical activities to bring the 20-ton vehicle to the launch pad. Here is the step-by-step description of what will have to be done.


History of the European Robotic Arm, ERA (INSIDER CONTENT)

The European Robotic Arm, ERA, will be one of the most significant components of the Nauka Multi-Purpose Module, MLM, when it joins the International Space Station, ISS. Attached to the exterior of the spacecraft, it will give the Russian Segment of the outpost the capability to take scientific experiments and other payloads from the pressurized volume of the station and deploy them on its exterior under remote control. At the same time, the ERA itself will be an engineering experiment in space robotics.



Integrating Nauka with the ISS

To support the addition of the MLM Nauka module to the ISS, the Russian crew members aboard the outpost had to perform many chores preceding the docking of the 20-ton spacecraft, which would increase the size and mass of the Russian Segment by almost a third. Moreover, once the module is in place, Russian cosmonauts were expected to conduct up to 11 spacewalks to fully plug all the systems of the new room into their home in orbit. The total in-orbit time required to integrate Nauka was expected to reach 2,000 work hours!


Preparing ISS for Nauka's liftoff (INSIDER CONTENT)

The work to configure the International Space Station for the addition of the MLM Nauka module began years before it had a chance to fly, but the most critical activities aboard the Russian Segment of the outpost preparing for the new arrival are expected to take place within a month before the start of the mission.


Preparing Russian Segment for MLM docking after its launch (INSIDER CONTENT)

The second phase of activities aboard the station will have to be cramped into a nine-day period between the launch of the Nauka module and its docking with the outpost. It will culminate with the departure of the Pirs Docking Compartment from the station, concluding its two-decade tenure on the ISS, which poses technical risk of its own.

All articles and illustrations inside this section by Anatoly Zak unless stated otherwise. All rights reserved

Last update: June 25, 2020