Getting to the International Space Station (ISS) used to take several days, as a spacecraft gradually caught up to the station before docking. Not anymore, thanks to Russia.
Yesterday they managed to get one of their Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS in less than four hours. The MS-09 spacecraft lifted off on a Soyuz rocket at 5.51pm EDT (9.51pm GMT), and successfully docked to the station at 9.31pm EDT (1.31am GMT) – a total time of three hours and 40 minutes. That’s mighty fast, quicker than a flight from LA to New York (at about four hours and 50 minutes), and it was even eight minutes early.
"We have liftoff of the Progress resupply ship, heading into the express lane, bound for the International Space Station," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in a live commentary shortly after the launch.
The spacecraft was able to reach the ISS in just two orbits thanks to launching just a moment after the ISS passed over the launch site in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. When it lifted off the ISS was 595 kilometers (370 miles) away, but it had to make up about 1,1615 kilometers (1,004 miles) once in orbit, notes Spaceflight Now.
On Twitter, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell said this was the “fastest launch-to-docking in the ISS program and the third fastest ever from Earth to a docking in Earth orbit.”
The only two faster dockings were the Soviet Union’s Kosmos-186/188 mission in 1967, which docked in just one hour and eight minutes, and NASA’s Gemini 11 mission in 1966, which docked in one hour and 34 minutes.
On board the spacecraft was about 3 tons of food, fuel, and supplies. The six astronauts on board the ISS will spend the next few months unpacking everything, while the spacecraft itself will remain docked until January 2019. Then it will leave the station, and be sent to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
This isn’t actually the first time Russia has attempted a quick trip to the ISS. They tried in October 2017, but a last-minute delay meant they had to switch back to a two-day journey. And a similar problem occurred in February 2018 when the launch was aborted.
Since 2012 Russia has been sending Progress spacecraft to the ISS in about six hours after four orbits of Earth. US spacecraft, by comparison, take several days to reach the station. And eventually Russia hopes to start sending cosmonauts in the Soyuz spacecraft on these quicker trips, reducing the amount of time they need to spend in cramped conditions.