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Final Soyuz-FG rocket delivers ISS crew
The 70th and last Soyuz-FG rocket variant lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Wednesday with a crew of three heading to the International Space Station, ISS, aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. The launch marked the last scheduled use of the historic Gagarin's pad at Site 1, which was the place of departure for the first Sputnik and for the Vostok spacecraft delivering the first human being into orbit. The spacecraft successfully docked at ISS around six hours after launch.
Soyuz MS-15 mission at a glance:
Soyuz MS-15 mission
The Soyuz MS-15 transport vehicle was slated to deliver two members of the 61st and 62nd long-duration expeditions to the orbital outpost for a half-a-year stay in orbit and a commercial passenger from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, for a short visit lasting around a week. The primary crew ultimately assigned to the Soyuz MS-15 mission included Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, a US astronaut Jessica Meir and a citizen from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. According to RKK Energia, the prime developer of the Soyuz MS series, the vehicle was also expected to carry around 180 kilograms of cargo, including 10 kilograms of fresh fruits and vegetables for the station's inhabitants.
According to an earlier plan, the UAE passenger was to launch on April 5, 2019, aboard the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft and, after a 10-day flight, hitchhike back to Earth the returning on Soyuz MS-10 on April 15, 2019. However, the latter vehicle, which carried only two crew members, never made it to orbit due to a launch vehicle failure. In the meantime, two candidates from UAE began training at Star City in September 2018.
Soon after the Soyuz MS-10 accident on October 11, 2018, NASA re-confirmed its plans to add its second astronaut to the Soyuz MS-12 crew and thus leaving no free seats aboard the three-seat vehicle during launch. As a result, the only other way to provide an extra seat for the returning space tourist would be bumping the return of one of the professional astronauts to a later mission.
As of the end of February 2019, Roskosmos was yet to get a final agreement with NASA about the potential use of one seat on the Soyuz MS-15 to launch a passenger from UAE. To accommodate the short visit, NASA had to agree to extend the flight of a US astronaut aboard the ISS to as long as one year. The mission extension for a NASA crew member would free the return seat for a tourist on the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft, which was scheduled for landing on Oct. 3, 2019.
Moreover, according to the original schedule, the launch of Soyuz MS-15 was planned for Oct. 18, 2019, or after the planned departure of Soyuz MS-12 on October 3, 2019, after 203 days in space.
In order to overlap the two missions at the ISS, by the beginning of 2019, Roskosmos evaluated advancing the planned launch of Soyuz MS-15 to September 23 and, later, to September 25.
The September 25 launch date was formally confirmed in the official ISS flight manifest, which was approved by Roskosmos on February 25, 2019. According to that document, Soyuz MS-15 was expected to remain in orbit for 187 days, implying a return to Earth on March 29, 2020. As an unintended consequence of flight schedule reshuffle, three transport vehicles would be docked at the station simultaneously for eight days and the station's crew would count nine people from September 25 until October 3, 2019, instead of the usual six persons.
Preparations for flight
The final Soyuz-FG rocket arrives at Site 1 in Baikonur on the morning of September 23, 2019.
After completion of their training at Star City, the primary and backup crews flew to Baikonur on September 10, 2019, for familiarization with the flight-worthy Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. The crews sat inside the vehicle undergoing final preparations at the processing building at Site 254 on September 11, 2019.
The technical management then cleared Soyuz MS-15 for fueling and loading of pressurized gases, which started on September 12. On the same day, inside the vehicle assembly building at Site 112 specialists completed the integration of the four boosters of the first stage and the core booster of the second stage for the mission's Soyuz-FG rocket.
Fueling operations with the spacecraft were completed on September 14 and the vehicle was installed back in its processing rig at Site 254 for further operations. On September 16, the Soyuz MS-15 was installed on top of the adapter ring serving as an interface with the Soyuz FG launch vehicle. On September 18, specialists conducted the final visual inspection of the spacecraft and then rolled it inside its protective fairing.
On September 20, the crews conducted their second and final familiarization training inside Soyuz MS-15, this time, boarding the vehicle through the hatch in the payload fairing. Inside, the crew members checked the position of cargo and tested various systems, including the communications gear. Next time, only the primary crew would board the spacecraft on the launch pad for the actual liftoff into orbit.
After the familiarization training, the crews conducted a series of traditional activities, including a visit to the vehicle assembly building at Site 112, where they posed for photographers in front of their partially assembled Soyuz-FG launch vehicle and a visit to the Baikonur museum. In the meantime, the payload section, including the spacecraft, the fairing and the launch vehicle adapter was lowered into horizontal position, loaded on a railway trailer and transported to the vehicle assembly building at Site 112 for integration with its Soyuz-FG rocket. On September 21, the emergency escape rocket was connected to the payload fairing and the payload section was then attached to third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket. Finally, the resulting upper composite was integrated with the two booster stages, completing the assembly of the launch vehicle. On the same day, the State Commission overseeing the preparations for launch gave the green light to the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad at Site 1. The rollout operations traditionally took place in the following morning.
How Soyuz MS-15 will be launched
The rocket followed a standard ascent profile to reach an initial orbit around the Earth with an inclination 57 degrees toward the Equator.
Propelled by the simultaneous thrust of the four engines of the first stage and the single engine of the second stage, the rocket headed east to align its ascent trajectory with an orbital plane inclined 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. Slightly less than two minutes into the flight, the ship's emergency escape system was jettisoned, immediately followed by the separation of the four boosters of the first stage. Almost exactly 40 seconds later, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft in the dense atmosphere split into two halves and fell away.
The second (core) stage of the booster continued firing until 4.8 minutes into the flight. Moments before the second stage completed its work, the four-chamber engine of the third stage ignited, firing through a lattice structure connecting the two stages. Moments after the separation of the core booster, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and separated as well.
Following a nearly nine-minute climb to orbit, the third stage of the rocket released the transport ship at 17:06:31 Moscow Time, close enough to the ISS to allow an automated rendezvous and docking with the station after just four orbits or less than six hours in the autonomous flight.
According to the Russian mission control in Korolev, the launch vehicle released the spacecraft into an initial orbit with the following parameters:
The Soyuz MS-15 was scheduled to dock at aft port of the Zvezda Service Module, a part of the Russian Segment of the International Space Station, ISS, at 22:45 Moscow Time (3:45 p.m. EDT) on the day of the launch with the time of docking approximated to around three minutes.
Since the approach was going smoothly, mission control advised the crew aboard Soyuz MS-15 to skip the usual station-keeping mode near the station and proceed directly to final approach after performing the flyaround of the outpost to align the transport ship with the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module.
As a result, the first contact between the spacecraft and the station took place around three minutes ahead of schedule at 22:42 Moscow Time (3:42 p.m. EDT), as the vehicles were flying over the Southern Pacific, off the coast of Chile.
According to Russian mission control, the post-docking activities had the following timeline during the night from September 25 to September 26:
According to NASA, hatches between the transport ship and the vehicle were to be opened around two hours after docking, at approximately 5:45 p.m. EDT on September 25 (00:45 Moscow Time on September 26).
Soyuz MS-15 crews:
The official logo of the Soyuz MS-15 mission. Credit: NASA
Soyuz MS-15 is being prepared for the installation of its payload fairing on September 18, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
The crew of Soyuz MS-15 arrives at Baikonur on September 10, 2019 (right to left): Oleg Skripochka, Jessica Meir and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Dressed in their Sokol pressure suits, the members of the primary crew walk to the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft for familiarization training in the processing building at Site 254 in Baikonur on September 11, 2019, (left to right): Oleg Skripochka, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori and Jessica Meir. Click to enlarge. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 is being integrated with its launch vehicle adapter on September 16, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 is being lowered into horizontal position for integration with its payload fairing on September 18, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Oleg Skripochka boards the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft through the hatch connecting it to the Habitation Module during the final familiarization training on September 20, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 crew boards spacecraft on September 25, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
Four boosters of the first stage and the escape rocket are seen separating during the launch of Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft on September 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
Separation of the third stage as seen by an external camera aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. Credit: NASA