A Russian Soyuz spacecraft has blasted off towards the International Space Station (ISS), marking a historic 500th launch from the Gagarin launchpad in Kazakhstan. Liftoff was at 10:37 a.m. local time in Baikonur this morning (12:37 a.m. EDT, 5:37 a.m. BST). Its three astronauts will arrive at the ISS early in the morning on Friday September 4.
On board are Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency), Aidyn Aimbetov of the Kazakh Space Agency and Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency (ESA). Mogensen is Denmark’s first astronaut, and to mark the special occasion the 38-year-old will be “greeted” by 20 LEGO figurines that were taken to the ISS on a previous cargo mission. While in space, Mogensen will select competition winners from school children to receive the toys when they are returned to Earth on a future SpaceX Dragon capsule.
“It’s a great honour for me to represent Denmark as an astronaut,” Mogensen said in an ESA hangout. He was originally going to be joined on the mission by British singer Sarah Brightman, but she was replaced by Aimbetov after she pulled out in May 2015 for unknown reasons.
The LEGO toys are emblazoned with the mission insignia. ESA.
The flight, named iriss, is also notable in that it will see nine people temporarily occupy the ISS, rather than the regular six, for the first time since 2013. This is due to a complicated version of cosmic musical chairs taking place as a result of the “Year in Space” mission. Two of the crew, NASA’s Scott Kelly and Roscosmos’ Mikhail Kornienko, are spending 12 months on the station to provide biological data for a future mission to Mars, which will require astronauts to spend almost three years off Earth.
The ISS only has sleeping compartments for six people though, so Mogensen said in a previous Q&A on Reddit that his crew of three would “have to find a nice quiet corner where we can attach our sleeping bags and sleep.”
On September 11, Mogensen and Aimbetov will complete their brief stay on the ISS and return to Earth with current Expedition 44 Commander Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos. Kelly and Kornienko will return to Earth with Volkov in March 2016. Although their time on the ISS will be short, just eight days, Mogensen and Aimbetov will complete a host of scientific experiments in their time on the orbital outpost.
You can watch a replay of the launch of Soyuz TMA-18M below.