Soyuz TMA-16M Crew Prepares for Spacecraft Switch, Ahead of Soyuz TMA-18M Arrival

Soyuz TMA-16M approaches the International Space Station (ISS) on 26/27 March, as viewed by Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts. After five months attached to the station, Soyuz TMA-16M and its crew of Gennadi Padalka, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly will perform a relocation flyabout tomorrow. Photo Credit: Terry Virts/NASA/Twitter
Soyuz TMA-16M approaches the International Space Station (ISS) on 26/27 March, as viewed by Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts. After five months attached to the station, Soyuz TMA-16M and its crew of Gennadi Padalka, Mikhail Kornienko, and Scott Kelly will perform a relocation flyabout tomorrow. Photo Credit: Terry Virts/NASA/Twitter

After five months in a quiescent state, attached to the space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft—carrying world-record-holding cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka and One-Year crewmen Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly—will undock from the International Space Station (ISS) at 3:12 a.m. EDT on Friday, 28 August, and conduct a 25-minute “flyabout” to redock with the aft longitudinal port of the Zvezda module at about 3:37 a.m. EDT. This maneuver is being performed in support of the relatively rare impending arrival of a third piloted Soyuz TMA-M at the orbital outpost in the coming days and will serve to properly configure each spacecraft at the station for the remainder of their respective missions. Next week, for the first time in almost two years, the ISS population will temporarily jump to nine men, with representatives of the United States, Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Denmark in space at the same time.

The station currently plays host to the six-strong Expedition 44 team, with Kornienko and Kelly—now 152 days into their planned 342-day record-setting ISS increment—joined by Padalka in command and recently-arrived Soyuz TMA-17M crewmen Oleg Konenenko, Kjell Lindgren, and Kimiya Yui. However, with Padalka due to return to Earth on 11/12 September, wrapping up almost six months in orbit, an additional piloted spacecraft in the 2015 manifest was employed to deliver a replacement cosmonaut, Sergei Volkov, who will join Kornienko and Kelly for the second half of their long mission, through March 2016.

Present plans call for Soyuz TMA-18M to launch from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:34 a.m. local time (12:34 a.m. EDT) on Wednesday, 2 September, carrying Volkov in command, Denmark’s first man in space, Andreas Mogensen, in the left-hand seat as Flight Engineer-1, and late addition Aidyn Aimbetov of Kazakhstan in the right-side seat as Flight Engineer-2. Aimbetov was added to the Soyuz TMA-18M crew earlier this summer, following the withdrawal from training of Spaceflight Participant (SFP) Sarah Brightman. In flying this mission, Aimbetov will become only the third ethnic Kazakh to journey into space, following in the footsteps of his countrymen Toktar Aubakirov and Talgat Musabayev. However, under past programs, numerous Soviet and Russian cosmonauts born and raised in Kazakhstan—from early pioneers such as Vladimir Shatalov and tragic Soyuz 11 veteran Viktor Patsayev to more recent Mir and ISS residents Aleksandr Viktorenko and Yuri Lonchakov—have flown in space.

Originally scheduled to fly atop a mammoth Soyuz-FG booster from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 1 September, a recent reboost of the space station’s orbit would have rendered it unreachable within the desired six-hour time span. Accordingly, this prompted a 24-hour launch postponement and Soyuz TMA-18M will now commence at 10:34 a.m. local time (12:34 a.m. EDT) on 2 September. The prime crew of Volkov, Mogensen, and Aimbetov, as well as their backups—Russian cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Sergei Prokopyev, together with Frenchman Thomas Pesquet—flew from the Star City training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to desolate Baikonur, on 18 August for their final two weeks of preparations.

Scott Kelly participates in a Soyuz spacecraft training session. He will board Soyuz TMA-16M tomorrow for a 25-minute relocation maneuver. Photo Credit: NASA
Scott Kelly participates in a Soyuz spacecraft training session. He will board Soyuz TMA-16M tomorrow for a 25-minute relocation maneuver. Photo Credit: NASA

Next day, Mogensen excitedly tweeted to his 25,000 followers that he, Volkov, and Aimbetov had sat aboard Soyuz TMA-18M at Baikonur for the first time. They evaluated rendezvous and communications tools, familiarized themselves with on-board documentation, and inspected their hefty payload of ISS-bound experiments. Mogensen described the three-part spacecraft—which includes a beehive-shaped descent module for the cosmonauts, a spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module, and has been in operational use for piloted missions since 1967—as “a magnificent ship.” On 21 August, as the prime and backup crews toured Baikonur and traditionally raised their national flags, Soyuz TMA-18M was transported to the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility to be loaded with propellants and compressed gases, ahead of launch.

On launch morning, in keeping with protocol, the crew will depart Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel at about 4:30 a.m. local time (6:30 p.m. EDT on 1 September) and will be bussed to Site 254, where they will don their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and bid final farewells to friends and family from behind glass screens. They will then head for Site 1/5 at about 7:30 a.m. local time (9:30 p.m. EDT on 1 September), about three hours ahead of the scheduled liftoff. Following their launch from Baikonur’s storied Site 1/5, Volkov, Mogensen, and Aimbetov will follow a now-standard six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile to dock with the Poisk module at about 4:53 p.m. Baikonur time (6:53 a.m. EDT). After 90 minutes of pressure and leak checks, the hatches between the two spacecraft will be opened and the three new arrivals will be greeted by their six Expedition 44 crewmates.

Unlike most ISS-bound Soyuz vehicles, which deliver new long-term crews in their entirety, the presence of two short-duration residents gives this mission a somewhat different dynamic. Mogensen is flying an exclusively scientific and technological mission, dubbed “iriss,” which represents a portmanteau of “ISS” and the name of the Greek messenger-goddess, Iris, who acted as a link between humanity and the cosmos and betwixt heaven and earth. “Most astronauts spend around six months on the space station and have a few weeks to acclimatize to living in weightlessness,” the European Space Agency (ESA) reported. “Andreas has no such luxury. Straight out of the Soyuz spacecraft that will take him to space, Andreas will get to work on ESA experiments.” This will involve 9.5-hour working days, approximately 90 minutes per day lengthier than the resident ISS crew, although Mogensen will be exempt from standard housekeeping chores during his brief “sprint” in orbit.

“The shorter mission,” continued ESA, “is ideal for testing new technology for space and new ways of operation.” Mogensen’s tight schedule will be packed with no fewer than 27 experiments, many of which—including a radiation monitoring device, the “SkinSuit” to alleviate back problems, and a new type of water purification filter—were due to be loaded aboard Soyuz TMA-18M today (Thursday, 27 August). The bulk of his work will be conducted aboard Europe’s Columbus pressurized laboratory module, which is now in its eighth year of operational service, having been delivered to the ISS by the crew of shuttle mission STS-122 in February 2008.

Aidyn Aimbetov (background), Sergei Volkov (center) and Andreas Mogensen (foreground) participate in trials aboard Soyuz TMA-18M at Baikonur, last week. Photo Credit: Andreas Mogensen/Twitter
Aidyn Aimbetov (background), Sergei Volkov (center) and Andreas Mogensen (foreground) participate in trials aboard Soyuz TMA-18M at Baikonur, last week. Photo Credit: Andreas Mogensen/Twitter

Interestingly, the backup crew have already been assigned to support future long-duration ISS missions, with Skripochka due to launch aboard the first flight of the new Soyuz-MS vehicle—alongside fellow cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams—in March 2016, Pesquet targeted to embark on a six-month mission with Russia’s Oleg Novitsky and NASA’s Peggy Whitson aboard Soyuz MS-3 in the fall of 2016 and Prokopyev penciled-in for Soyuz MS-6 in September 2017.

In anticipation of the Soyuz TMA-18M crew’s arrival, a brief period of “musical chairs” will take place at the space station. At present, the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly—fitted with their custom-molded seat liners—resides at the Poisk module, whilst the Soyuz TMA-17M vehicle of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui occupies the Rassvet module, both of which project radially in space-facing (or “zenith”) and Earth-facing (or “nadir”) directions from the multiple docking adapter of the Zarya Functional Cargo Block (FGB). Under normal circumstances, six-member ISS expeditions follow an “indirect” rotation procedure, whereby a given three-person subset departs, temporarily reducing the space station’s population to three, after which three new residents arrive to boost it back up to six. With the requirement for Padalka to be exchanged for Volkov, at the midpoint of Kornienko and Kelly’s year-long mission, plans were adapted to encompass a “direct rotation” and the arrival of a third Soyuz TMA-M necessitated a third docking interface.

Ordinarily, unpiloted Progress resupply freighters and ESA’s now-retired Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) are docked at the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module (SM), in order that they could conduct periodic reboosts of the ISS orbit along the station’s longitudinal axis. However, the most recent occupant of Zvezda-aft—Progress M-26M—departed on 14 August and the next arrival, Progress M-29M, is not due to launch until 19 October, leaving the port temporarily empty. Since Soyuz TMA-16M has spent more than five months aloft, and is due to return to Earth with Padalka, Mogensen and Aimbetov on 11/12 September, it makes sense to temporarily relocate it at the Zvezda-aft interface and retain the Poisk/Rassvet radial ports for the ongoing long-duration crew members. The arrival of Soyuz TMA-18M thus marks the first time that a “direct rotation” of ISS crews has taken place since November 2013.

At the end of the joint mission, Padalka will relinquish command of the space station to Kelly, officially marking the transfer from Expedition 44 into Expedition 45, before boarding Soyuz TMA-16M alongside Mogensen and Aimbetov and undocking from Zvezda-aft for their return to Earth. Following a standard re-entry protocol, the crew will touchdown in central Kazakhstan at 3:49 a.m. Moscow Time on 12 September (8:49 p.m. EDT on the 11th). Upon landing, Padalka—who has held the world record for the most flight-experienced spacefarer since 28 June—will accrue a career total of more than 878 days, or 2.4 years of his 57 years of life, in orbit, spread across five discrete missions. Wrapping up ten days in space, Mogensen will add Denmark to the list of nations who can boast a national astronaut and Aimbetov will become first ethnic Kazakh cosmonaut to have traveled to the ISS in more than a decade.

Thus will commence the second half of the One-Year Mission, with Kelly leading the Expedition 45 crew of Kornienko, Kononenko, Lindgren, Yui, and Volkov through the end of 2015. Current expectations call for the return to flight of Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vehicles in the November-December timeframe. According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, the CRS-8 Dragon will launch in November, carrying the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) for installation at the aft-facing port of the Tranquility node, with the ORB-4 Cygnus due to follow in December. A second direct rotation of crew members will the occur on 15 December, with the launch of Soyuz TMA-19M and Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko, U.S. astronaut Tim Kopra, and Britain’s Tim Peake to briefly expand Expedition 45 up to nine members.

A second direct rotation for 2015 was not originally timetabled, but has been added in order to maximize the time spent in orbit by the Soyuz TMA-17M crew of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui, the beginning of whose six-month flight was postponed from May to July, and which is being correspondingly extended from 5 November until 22 December. In anticipation of the Soyuz TMA-19M arrival, Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will relocate their Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft to Zvezda-aft, opening up Rassvet for the new arrivals. Soyuz TMA-17M will then return to Earth, marking the dawn of Expedition 46—also under Kelly’s command—which will run through the end of the One-Year Mission in early March 2016.



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