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Soyuz MS-17 delivers fresh ISS crew
The second and final Russian crew mission of 2020 lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the morning of October 14 on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Just 3 hours, 3 minutes and 38 seconds after its launch, the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft completed a successful docking at the International Space Station, ISS, setting a record for the fastest trip to the outpost. Onboard the ISS, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut joined the 63rd long-duration expedition and they were scheduled to continue live and work on the ISS as Expedition 64 until April 2021.
Soyuz MS-17 mission at a glance:
Soyuz MS-17 flight program
The Soyuz MS-17 (Production No. 747) is the 63rd vehicle in the Soyuz family slated for launch to the International Space Station.
In the 2014 version of the ISS flight manifest, launch of the Soyuz MS-17 was planned for September 13, 2020, but by the middle of 2019, the mission was re-scheduled for October 14 of the same year. At that time, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner were planned for launch aboard Soyuz MS-17 and Roskosmos planned to add another cosmonaut in order to increase the Russian crew aboard the ISS from two to three people in anticipation of the MLM Nauka module launch, then planned in December 2020.
Also, continuous delays with the introduction of new American crew vehicles prompted NASA to negotiate the purchase of the third seat aboard Soyuz MS-17 for its astronaut. Initially, Stephen Bowen was considered as a candidate for that flight. In case a US astronaut had to be assigned to the mission and the Nauka ended up being ready for launch as previously planned at the end of 2020, Roskosmos would not have a large enough crew aboard the Russian Segment to receive and integrate the new module. But, anticipating another delay with Nauka as early as the Fall of 2019, Roskosmos had already taken steps to support the module's arrival in 2021. In early 2020, the launch of MLM was officially postponed until Spring of 2021.
In early May 2020, a press-release from the Zhukovsky airport disclosed that Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud'-Sverchkov had been selected as primary members of the Soyuz MS-17 crew, with Oleg Novitsky and Petr Dubrov as their backups. For its part, NASA added astronaut Kate Rubins to the primary crew and Mark T. Vande Hei to the backup crew.
Due to additional risk associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Roskosmos assigned cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Andrei Babkin to serve as another backup crew for the Soyuz MS-17 mission. The pair officially began their training on June 5, 2020.
Soyuz MS-17 is being erected on the launch pad on October 11, 2020.
The active campaign for the launch of Soyuz MS-17 started in Baikonur on August 4, 2020, when the spacecraft was taken out of storage and installed at its processing work site to begin preparations starting with autonomous tests of various systems. Next, the spacecraft was placed into the vacuum chamber for leak checks which were completed on September 18, 2020.
On September 23, the solar panels of the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft were exposed to an array of electric lights to test their performance and at the same time, specialists completed the outfitting of the ship's Descent Module and preparation of personal crew equipment, RKK Energia announced.
After the completion of their formal training at Star City, the primary and backup crews departed for Baikonur on the morning of September 27, 2020, for familiarization training with the actual spacecraft, which took place on September 28. The exercise included donning the flight suits and their leak checks, as well as a review of the flight equipment and the flight program. On the same day, a meeting of technical management cleared Soyuz MS-17 for the loading of propellant components and pressurized gases, and the same evening, the spacecraft was delivered to the fueling facility at Site 31. Fueling operations were completed as scheduled on October 1, with the return of the spacecraft to its processing facility at Site 254. The spacecraft was installed back into its dynamic stand for further processing, including the loading of cargo, the installation of thermal shielding, weight measurements and integration with the launch vehicle adapter. The latter operation took place on October 2.
On October 5, 2020, specialists conducted the final visual inspection of the vehicle, after which it was lowered in horizontal position and rolled inside its payload fairing. The entire assembly was then returned into vertical position in its processing rig for the simulation of launch readiness.
On October 7, the primary and backup crews conducted the second and final familiarization training inside the flight-ready spacecraft, this time without wearing safety pressure suits. The payload section with the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft was then lowered in horizontal position and loaded onto the railway platform, which transported it from the spacecraft processing building at Site 254 to the vehicle assembly building at Site 31 on October 8, 2020, where integration with the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle which took place on October 9. On the morning of October 11, the launch vehicle with the spacecraft was rolled out from the assembly building and installed on the launch pad at Site 31, where specialists began autonomous tests of the rocket, the spacecraft and launch systems.
During a traditional pre-launch press-conference on October 13, the Soyuz commander Sergei Ryzhikov said that the crew would deliver new equipment to the station to help with the search for an elusive air leak aboard the Zvezda Service Module, SM. which has bugged the station's inhabitants and mission control in recent weeks.
The fueling of the rocket was scheduled to take place from 04:05 to 06:00 Moscow Time on October 14, 2020.
How Soyuz MS-17 will be launched
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, at an altitude of around 45 kilometers and a velocity of 1.75 kilometers per second, the ship's main emergency escape rocket was jettisoned, immediately followed by the separation of the four boosters of the first stage. Around 35 seconds later, as the vehicle exited the dense atmosphere at an altitude of 79 kilometers and a velocity of 2.2 kilometers per second, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft 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 the lattice structure connecting the two stages. Moments after the separation of the core booster at an altitude of 157 kilometers and a velocity of 3.8 kilometers per second, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and separated as well.
Following an 8 minute 49 second climb to orbit, the third stage of the rocket successfully released Soyuz MS-17 into a parking orbit at 08:53:53 Moscow Time (1:53 a.m. EDT).
According to Roskosmos the parameters of the initial orbit should be as following:
At the time, the ISS will be orbiting the Earth at an average altitude of around 419 kilometers.
Soyuz MS-17 followed a two-orbit, three-hour rendezvous profile to reach the International Space Station, ISS, for the first time. During its autonomous flight, the crew vehicle was scheduled to perform three major maneuvers to transfer from its initial orbit to a point for a fully automated rendezvous, flyaround and linkup with the station. The first maneuver was to be conducted around 20 minutes after reaching orbit, followed by another engine firing around 30 minutes later.
Summary of the Soyuz MS-17 orbit-correction maneuvers:
The docking of the Soyuz MS-17 at the nadir (Earth-facing) port of the MIM1 Rassvet module, a part of the Russian Segment was scheduled for 11:52:27 Moscow Time (08:52 UTC, 4:52 a.m. EDT) with a projected accuracy of around three minutes. In reality, the contact between the crew vehicle and the station took place ahead of schedule at 11:48:53 Moscow Time, as the two spacecraft were flying over the Mediterranean Sea, and despite some issue with the Kurs rendezvous antenna early in flight, according to NASA TV.
The actual time from launch to docking ended up to be 3 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds. The two-orbit rendezvous process was previously tested during the flight of the Progress MS-15 cargo ship which reached the outpost 3 hours and 18 minutes after its liftoff.
Following a series of leak checks, the hatches between Soyuz MS-17 and the ISS were scheduled to be open around 13:45 Moscow Time (6:45 a.m. EDT). However, the operation took somewhat longer, with the opening of the hatch on the station's side around 13:50 Moscow Time, followed by opening of the Soyuz' hatch at 14:07 Moscow Time (6:07 a.m. EDT) on October 14, 2020.
Soyuz MS-17 (right) photographed aboard the ISS on October 18, 2020.
According to the initial flight program in early 2020, following its launch on October 14, 2020, the Soyuz MS-17 was to remain docked at the MIM1 Rassvet module until April 1, 2021. The spacecraft would then re-dock to the MIM2 Poisk module to make way for the arrival of Soyuz MS-18, then scheduled for launch on April 9, 2021. After the overlapping presence at the ISS of the two Russian crew vehicles, Soyuz MS-17 was scheduled to depart the station and land on April 17, 2021, after 185 days in space.
However, in the provisional flight manifest prepared by Roskosmos by the end of Summer 2020, the redocking date for the Soyuz MS-17 mission was advanced to March 10, 2021, and the landing date moved to April 9, 2021, preserving around a week-long overlap with the Soyuz MS-18 mission at the station, whose launch was advanced to April 1, 2021. As a result, the flight duration for the Soyuz MS-17 crew was cut to 177 days. Roskosmos officially confirmed the new flight duration for the Soyuz MS-17 mission ahead of the ship's launch on October 14, 2020.
In the November 2020 draft of the ISS flight manifest, the redocking of Soyuz MS-17 was pushed back from March 10 to March 17, 2021, and its landing was re-scheduled for April 17, 2021, after 185 days in space. The overlap with the Soyuz MS-18 mission would now expected to be around eight days.
On November 18, 2o20, Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kyd-Sverchkov from the Soyuz MS-17 crew performed the 47th Russian spacewalk, VKD-47, in the history of the ISS project. Their primary goal was to lay the groundwork for the addition of the MLM Nauka module to the Russian Segment in 2021.
Less than a month before its return to Earth, the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft moved to a new docking port on the International Space Station. The vehicle's relocation from the MIM1 Rassvet module to the MIM2 Poisk module took place on March 19, 2021. In the unlikely event preventing the successful re-docking of the spacecraft at the station, the entire three-member crew of the Soyuz MS-17 was onboard during a short free flight.
Ahead of the redocking operation, the mission control in Houston turned the ISS 180 degrees from its regular orientation, so that the Russian Segment would be in front relative to the velocity vector.
The operation started as scheduled with the command for undocking at 19:37 Moscow Time (12:37 p.m. EDT), followed by a physical separation of Soyuz MS-17 from the nadir (Earth-facing) docking port on the Rassvet module around 1.5 minutes later (at 19:38:31 Moscow Time).
A Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov then manually backed away the vehicle to a safe distance of around 40 meters from the station, followed by a 13-minute flyaround scheduled to last from 19:45 to 19:58 Moscow Time. The spacecraft was then scheduled to go through a short period of station keeping before starting the final manual approach to the zenith (sky-facing) port on Poisk at 20:01 Moscow Time. The crew vehicle was scheduled to dock at Poisk around 20:07 Moscow Time (1:07 p.m. EDT), but the actual docking took place at 1:12:35 p.m. EDT, after a short period of station-keeping a few meters from the station. At the time, the two spacecraft were flying over South Atlantic, off the coast of Argentina. NASA reported that the hooks closure in the docking ports between Soyuz MS-17 and Poisk, completing the docking process, was achieved at 1:18 p.m. EDT.
The repositioning of the Soyuz set the stage for a spacewalk required to prepare the undocking and discarding of the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, in the process of accommodating the MLM Nauka module. That spacewalk will be conducted from the Poisk module.
The planned timeline of the Soyuz MS-17 redocking operation, according to the Russian mission control:
During a traditional "change-of-command" ceremony on April 15, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov gave the symbolic key from the ISS to NASA astronaut Shannon Walker. The subsequent departure of Soyuz MS-17 marks the transition from Expedition 64 to 65 aboard the ISS.
Fulfilling the schedule in place at the time of their launch in October 2020, three members of Expedition 64 aboard the International Space Station are preparing for the return to Earth on April 17, 2021.
According to Roskosmos, Russian members of Soyuz MS-17 crew began preparation for landing around two weeks in advance. Four 20-minute exercise sessions in the Chibis pneumatic suit, creating negative pressure on the lower part of the body and thus simulating Earth's gravity for the vascular system, were added to the cosmonauts' daily routine. All the physical activities are accompanied by continued heartbeat and arterial pressure measurements. The cosmonauts also begin taking some food additives designed to reduce dehydration of the body. The crew members also refresh their understanding of the landing procedures.
Exercises in the Chibis suit increase to 55 minutes in the final two days before the return to Earth. Also, in the final day in space, the cosmonauts intake salt solutions to control dehydration.
In the meantime, back on Earth, search and rescue teams from Russia's Central Military District completed by March 15 the deployment in Kazakhstan of ground and air assets in support of the Soyuz MS-17 landing. A total of eight Mi-8MTV5-1 helicopter, an An-12 transport aircraft and two PEM-1 and -2 Sinya Ptitsa evacuation vehicles moved to the city of Karaganda, where they joined forces with the main search and rescue team that support the launch of the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft on April 9. The entire search and rescue force includes more than 200 members of the military personnel, 12 Mi-8 helicopters, An-12 and An-26 fixed-wing aircraft, around 30 ground vehicles, among them six PEM trucks.
NASA predicted the excellent weather at the landing site with clear skies and temperature around 64F degrees.
The ship's original crew: Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergei Kud'-Sverchkov and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins took their original seats aboard Soyuz MS-17 during the night from April 16 to April 17. According to Roskosmos, the hatches between the station and the crew vehicle were scheduled to close between 01:10 and 01:30 Moscow Time on April 17 (6:10 and 6:30 p.m. EDT on April 16). The actual closure of the Soyuz hatch took place at 01:24 Moscow and the station's hatch was shot closed a minute later.
In the following hour (from 01:30 to 02:30 Moscow Time), the members of the Soyuz MS-17 crew were expected to conduct leak checks on the hatch and don their Sokol safety suits. They were scheduled to transfer from the Habitation Module to the Descent Module of the crew vehicle and close the hatch separating the two compartments between 02:30 and 03:16 Moscow Time. The following half an hour was reserved for checking the pressure in the Sokol suits and another 30 minutes were given for the seal checks in the Descent Module entry hatch. All the tests were scheduled to be completed by 04:14 Moscow Time.
The Soyuz MS-17 undocked from the zenith (sky-facing) port of the MIM2 Poisk module, a part of the station's Russian Segment, at 04:34:00 Moscow Time on April 17 (9:34 p.m. EDT on April 16) and began maneuvering away from the outpost.
Acccording to the mission control in Korolev, the undocking process had the following sequence:
Reentry and landing
After around a 2.5-hour autonomous flight, the Soyuz fired its main engine, initiating a 4-minute 38-second (279-second) deorbiting maneuver at 07:01:35 Moscow Time (12:01 a.m. EDT) on April 17. It will slow down the vehicle by 128 meters per second, just enough to initiate its reentry. Around 10 seconds after the completion of the deorbit burn at 07:06:13 Moscow Time, the Habitation Module was commanded to depressurize in preparation for the separation of the spacecraft modules. The crew members also put their helmet visors down, checked their seat restrains and other safety equipment.
As the spacecraft plunged toward the dense atmosphere, the Habitation Module and the Instrument Module separated from the Descent Module, carrying the crew, at 07:29:55 Moscow Time. The Descent Module experienced the entry interface with the atmosphere at 07:32:52 Moscow Time. During the atmospheric braking, the capsule slowed down from 7.626 kilometers per second to just 210 meters per second over a period of just 395 seconds (around 6.5 minutes). Around that time, the crew experienced a deceleration of around 4 g.
The touchdown of the Descent Module 147 kilometers southeast of Zhezkazgan in the grasslands of Kazakhstan took place at 07:55:12 Moscow Time (12:55 a.m. EDT), slightly ahead of scheduled time of 07:55:54 Moscow Time. Helicopter crews got the visual of the capsule around 10 minutes before its touchdown and then followed it to the ground, a NASA representative said.
The Descent Module landed upright and all three crew members were extracted from the capsule in seemingly good shape within around 20 minutes after the touchdown. According to the mission control in Korolev, the actual landing site had the following coordinates: 47 degrees 20 minutes North latitude and 69 degrees 40 minutes East longitude.
Planned timeline for the Soyuz MS-17 landing on April 17, 2021, according to Roskosmos, as of April 15**:
Soyuz MS-17 crews:
The official logo of the Soyuz MS-17 mission. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 (left) returns to its processing facility after vacuum tests on September 18, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 (right) undergoes solar panels testing on September 23, 2020, at Site 254 in Baikonur, with the MLM Nauka module on the foreground and a pair of Progress-MS cargo ships on the background. The launch vehicle adapter, connecting the MLM to the third stage of the Proton rocket, can be seen on the right. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 arrived at the fueling facility in Baikonur on the evening of September 28, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 (background) returns to spacecraft processing building at Site 254 on October 1, 2020, after the completion of the fueling operations. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 (left) was integrated with its launch vehicle adapter on October 2, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Sergei Ryzhikov boards Soyuz MS-17 during crew familiarization training on October 7, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 is being transferred to the vehicle assembly building on October 8, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 is being integrated with its launch vehicle on October 9, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 crew during suiting-up operations few hours before launch on October 14, 2020. Left to right: Kate Rubins, Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergei Kud'-Sverchkov. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Due to coronavirus pandemic, the crew and launch personell were wearing masks during most of boarding operations. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 lifts off on October 14, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-17 approaches the MIM1 Rassvet module on October 14, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos