Russian Cargo Ship Reaches Space Station In Record Time

A previous Russian Progress cargo ship docked to the Pirs docking compartment of the International Space Station. (Image: NASA)

A Russian-built spacecraft has reached the International Space Station in less than four hours, making it the fastest supply mission to space in history.

At 7:51AM AEST on July 10, a Progress 70 supply freighter blasted off aboard a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. A mere three hours and 40 minutes later, the Russian-built cargo craft, filled with nearly three tonnes of food, fuel and other supplies, rendezvoused with the ISS.

That’s one speedy delivery, and a new record, reports Space.

The fast-track to the ISS required the Progress 70 vehicle to perform just two orbits of Earth prior to docking.

“The two-orbit rendezvous was made possible by timing the Soyuz rocket’s launch to an instant just before the space station sailed over the Baikonur Cosmodrome,” explained Stephen Clark at Spaceflight Now.

Russian spacecraft are currently the most efficient at making quick cargo deliveries. For the past six years, the Soyuz rocket has delivered both supplies and astronauts to the ISS in less than six hours, requiring six Earth orbits.

US cargo vehicles, such as those manufactured by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, usually require several days to the reach the ISS after launch.

This was the Russian space agency’s third attempt at an abbreviated trip to the space station. Previously, lift-off delays, in which control units had to be replaced inside the Soyuz rocket, forced officials with ROSCOSMOS to revert to a trajectory requiring 34 orbits and two days.

“I think it finally worked out for us,” Vladimir Solovyov, the chief Russian flight director, was quoted as saying in Spaceflight Insider.

“This is very promising in support of our upcoming plans both for the current program and the programs of the future. So this is definitely a giant step forward. We’ve been waiting for this milestone for a long time and, hopefully, this will become the rule of thumb from here on out.”

NASA is also interested in this new launch strategy, known as a double-loop rendezvous scheme, saying the “less-than-four-hour trip will demonstrate an expedited capability that may be used on future Russian cargo and crew launches”.

Russia’s space agency said it plans to use the faster, two-orbit rendezvous strategy for future Soyuz crew missions, but NASA cautioned that the technique needs to be tested “several more times” before crewed missions will adopt this particular launch profile.

Sensible precautions notwithstanding, this achievement bodes well for speedy crewed missions to the ISS. In less than four hours — about the time it takes to drive from Sydney to Canberra — an astronaut will be able to look out the window of the ISS and gaze upon the Earth. That’s pretty cool.

[NASA, CBC, Space, Spaceflight Now]

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