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Soyuz MS-12 arrives at ISS
The three new members of Expeditions 59 and 60 aboard the International Space Station blasted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, including a cosmonaut and an astronaut who five months earlier made a dangerous suborbital flight and an emergency landing after an accident with their rocket. Aleksei Ovchinin and Nick Hague from the ill-fated Soyuz MS-10 mission, this time accompanied by NASA astronaut Christina Koch, lifted off aboard Soyuz MS-12 on March 14, 2019, at 22:14 Moscow Time (3:14 p.m. EDT, 19:14 GMT) and successfully entered orbit around nine minutes later.
The Soyuz MS-12 crew during training inside the Descent Module of the flight-worthy spacecraft on Feb. 27, 2019, (left to right): NASA astronaut Christina Hammock-Koch, Roskosmos cosmonaut and Soyuz commander Aleksei Ovchinin and a NASA astronaut Nick Hague.
Soyuz MS-12 mission at a glance:
Not knowing when to return?
In various iterations of the ISS flight manifest, the launch of the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft was successively penciled for March 7, March 14 and March 1, 2019. In the fall of 2018, there were plans to include a commercial passenger from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, in the crew of Soyuz MS-12 then planned for liftoff on April 5, 2019. After nearly 10 days aboard the station, the UAE citizen would return to Earth aboard the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft on April 16, 2019, or six months after that ship's launch on Oct. 11, 2018, with Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin and the American astronaut Nick Hague onboard. The third seat on Soyuz MS-10 during its launch was occupied with cargo and it would be available for the return trip of a commercial passenger.
However, that schedule was derailed by the failed launch of Soyuz MS-10. Within a month after the botched flight on Oct. 11, 2018, Roskosmos re-assigned Ovchinin and Hague from Soyuz MS-10 to Soyuz MS-12 and NASA added Christina Hammock-Koch to the newly formed crew. At the time, the launch of Soyuz MS-12 was scheduled on March 1, at 03:42 Moscow Time, and its return on Oct. 3, 2019, after a record-breaking 216 days in orbit.
In turn, the launch of an UAE citizen was moved to the Soyuz MS-15 flight in the Fall of 2019, but only on the condition that one of the crew members from Soyuz MS-12 would remain on the ISS into 2020 and thus free its seat aboard Soyuz MS-10 for a return ride after a short visit in the Fall of 2019. Surprisingly, the decision about which out of three crew members would volunteer for what was likely to be a nearly year-long flight would not be publicly announced until after the launch of Soyuz MS-12.
Technically, Ovchinin was prepared to stay aboard the ISS for a year, but it would also mean that no Russian cosmonauts, normally trained to pilot Soyuz, would be onboard the spacecraft during its return to Earth.
According to the schedule approved on Feb. 25, 2019, Soyuz MS-12 was set to depart on March 14, 2019. The same document planned the return date of the spacecraft on Oct. 3, 2019, after a 203-day mission. However, the exact crew for the return trip of Soyuz MS-12 was not officially made at the time and consultations between Roskosmos and NASA were ongoing.
Roskosmos also said that along with the crew, Soyuz MS-12 also carried 126.9 kilogrmas
In the meantime, active launch preparations for the launch of Soyuz MS-12 began at the processing complex of RKK Energia at Site 254 in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Feb. 18, 2019, the company announced that air leak tests of the Soyuz MS-12 with helium-air mixture inside of an upgraded vacuum chamber had been completed. The vehicle was then returned to its processing rig, where it was being connected to its ground diagnostic equipment, RKK Energia said.
On February 26, the primary and backup crews flew to Baikonur to undergo the final phase of their training, this time with the flight-worthy spacecraft.
The primary crew included Aleksei Ovchinin, Nick Hague and Christina Hammock-Koch. Their backups were Roskosmos cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, European astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan.
The day after their arrival, the crews put on their flight suits and sat inside Soyuz MS-12, familiarizing themselves with the actual flight hardware and going over their flight program. On the same day, the mission management gave the green light for the fueling of the spacecraft, which was completed on March 2.
On March 4, Soyuz MS-12 was integrated with an adapter ring which serves as an interface with its Soyuz FG launch vehicle. Then, on March 6, specialists conducted the final inspection of the spacecraft before it was rolled inside its protective fairing.
On March 10, both crews sat inside Soyuz MS-12 for the final time, before three of them would board it on the launch pad. The payload section, including the spacecraft, was then transferred to the launch vehicle assembly building at Site 112, where it was integrated with the third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket and the Emergency Escape System, SAS. The resulting upper composite was then connected to the already assembled cluster of the first and second stage boosters.
The rollout of the launch vehicle with the spacecraft to Site 1 in Baikonur took place on the morning of March 12. During the integrated tests on the pad, specialists discovered a problem in the avionics unit of the flight control system built by GNPP Kommunar in Kharkov, Ukraine. In a rare and little-known cooperative effort between the two former Soviet republics, the joint Russian-Ukrainian team worked to resolve the problem.
Thanks to some extra time built into the processing schedule on March 13, the specialists were available to replace the affected component without delaying the planned launch.
Soyuz MS-12 enters orbit
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, the ship's emergency escape system was jettisoned, immediately followed by the separation of the four boosters of the first stage. Almost exactly 40 seconds later, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft in the dense atmosphere 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 a lattice structure connecting the two stages. Moments after the separation of the core booster, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and separated as well.
The third stage continue firing until the command to cut off its engines 8.7 minutes into the flight at 22:23 Moscow Time (3:23 p.m. EDT).
Launch timeline of the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft according to Roskosmos.
After reaching orbit, the Soyuz MS-12 was in a position to follow a six-hour, four-orbit rendezvous profile with the ISS.
An automated docking of the spacecraft was planned at 04:07 Moscow Time on March 15 (9:07 p.m. EDT on March 14). Soyuz MS-12 was expected to berth at the nadir (Earth-facing) port of the MIM1 Rassvet module, a part of the Russian Segment of the station.
According to NASA, Soyuz MS-12 successfully completed six engine burns before starting the final approach to the station.
According to the Russian mission control, the final rendezvous timeline on March 15 was as following:
However, during the actual rendezvous, the flawless performance of the spacecraft allowed to cut the station-keeping period and to begin the final approach around five minutes ahead of schedule.
According to the mission control in Korolev, the actual docking was achieved at 04:01:43 Moscow Time and the the hard mate between the two spacecraft was confirmed at 04:07:30 Moscow Time with the closure of the hooks of the docking port on the transport ship.
The moment of docking of Soyuz MS-12 at the ISS was considered the official beginning of Expedition 59 aboard the outpost, instead of a traditional start of a new long-duration shift with the departure of a previous crew. This break with tradition was apparently prompted by the Soyuz MS-1o launch accident which delayed staffing the station with its complete six-member crew and delaying the official start of Expedition 59.
According to the mission in Korolev, post-docking operations aboard Soyuz MS-12 were planned along the following timeline:
The hatch opening between the newly arrived transport and the ISS was scheduled for 06:10 Moscow Time on March 15 (11:10 p.m. Eastern Time on March 14), but it actually took place around three minutes earlier.
According to the February 25 schedule, the Soyuz MS-12 was expected to stay at the station for 203 days until the beginning of October, however the spacecraft is likely to carry back to Earth only two of three crew members who rode it into orbit.
At a pre-flight press-conference on March 13, Aleksei Ovchinin said that the decision would be made shortly after their launch about who would be staying aboard the station beyond the scheduled landing date for Soyuz MS-12 on October 3, in order to make a seat available for the return of a commercial passenger from the United Arab Emirates scheduled to arrive at the station aboard Soyuz MS-15 on September 25.
At the post-docking press-conference in Russia on March 15 (Moscow Time), NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier announced that US astronauts Christina Koch and Andrew Morgan would stay longer aboard ISS to allow Roskosmos to implement its planned commercial mission.
Soyuz MS-12 crews:
The Soyuz MS-12 mission patch.
Soyuz MS-12 is being prepared for final processing on March 2, 2019, after completion of fueling. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
Soyuz MS-12 arrives at launch pad on March 12.Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
Soyuz MS-12 shortly after arrival at the launch pad on March 12, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
Soyuz MS-12 arrives at ISS. Credit: NASA