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Soyuz-2 rocket lifts off with its first crew
Backdropped by a pandemic, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft lifted off on April 9, 2020, marking the first mission of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket variant to deliver people into orbit. After years of preparations and flight tests, the successful launch completed the transition of the Russian piloted space program from the Soyuz-FG version, which relied on the flight control system built in Ukraine.
Crew members prepare to board the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft for the final familiarization training on April 3, 2020.
Soyuz MS-16 mission at a glance:
The Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft was assigned to carry three members of the 62nd and 63rd long-duration expeditions aboard the International Space Station, ISS. Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin and NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy were originally selected for the mission, but on February 19, 2020, Roskosmos announced the replacement of the primary Russian members of the crew due to medical reasons. The commander and flight engineer positions were re-assigned respectively to Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who previously served as backups. NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy continued training for the flight.
Preparing Soyuz MS-16
In the early version of the ISS flight manifest, the launch of Soyuz MS-16 was tentatively scheduled for March 30, 2020, but by April 2019, the mission was planned to begin on March 20, 2020. In October 2019, the flight manifest under consideration penciled the launch for April 9, 2020, which was ultimately set as the launch date.
On November 27, 2019, RKK Energia, prime developer of the spacecraft, announced that Soyuz MS-16 had been delivered to Baikonur. The vehicle was unloaded from its railway car and placed inside the vehicle processing building for acceptance checks and storage, the company said.
The spacecraft remained in storage until January 28, 2020, when it was installed in its processing rig at Site 254 for the initial processing.
On February 27, 2020, RKK Energia announced that Soyuz MS-16 had completed autonomous tests, including powering up of onboard systems, diagnostics of computer and radio-navigation gear, pressurization tests and other checks.
On March 14, 2020, RKK Energia reported that its joint team with the TsENKI ground infrastructure center had completed vacuum testing of Soyuz MS-16. The solar panel tests on the spacecraft took place on March 19.
The primary and backup crews arrived at Baikonur aboard Roskosmos' new Tu-204-300 aircraft on March 24, 2020, and the next day, they visited the spacecraft processing building for familiarization training inside the spacecraft undergoing final preparations. On the same day, the technical management cleared the vehicle for irreversible operations. The fueling of the spacecraft began on March 26, 2020, completing on March 28, when the vehicle was returned at its processing complex at Site 254. The integration of the spacecraft with the launch vehicle adapter took place on March 30, 2020. Then, on April 1, 2020, specialists conducted the final visual inspection of the spacecraft and rolled it inside its protective fairing.
At the end of March and early April 2020, the corona virus pandemic prompted various restrictions at Baikonur during the final preparations for launch of Soyuz MS-16. A number of management meetings and traditional ceremonies associated with the mission were either scaled down or replaced with video conferences. The crew members were reported to be under a strict quarantine to exclude a possible exposure to the virus.
Final assembly of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle with the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft on April 4, 2020.
On the morning of April 3, 2020, members of the primary and backup crews visited the processing building once again and conducted the final inspection of their spacecraft in its launch configuration. The spacecraft was then transported to the rocket assembly building at Site 31, where on April 4, 2020, it was integrated with the Emergency Escape System, SAS, and the third stage of the launch vehicle. The resulting upper composite was then attached to the booster stages of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket, completing the assembly of the launch vehicle. The subsequent meeting of the technical management declared the launch vehicle ready for rollout to the launch pad, which took place on the morning of April 6, 2020.
How Soyuz MS-16 was launched
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, at an altitude of around 45 kilometers and a velocity of 1.75 kilometers per second, the ship's emergency escape system was jettisoned, followed by the separation of the four boosters of the first stage. Around 35 seconds later, as the vehicle existed dense atmosphere at an altitude of 79 kilometers and a velocity of 2.2 kilometers per second, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft plit 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 the lattice structure connecting the two stages. Moments after the separation of the core booster at an altitude of 157 kilometers and a velocity of 3.8 kilometers per second, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and separated as well.
Following a nearly nine-minute climb to orbit, the third stage of the rocket released Soyuz MS-16 into an initial parking orbit at 11:13:56 Moscow Time (4:13 a.m. EDT) at an altitude of around 204 kilometers.
According to a pre-launch announcement, Soyuz MS-16 was supposed to enter an orbit with the following parameters:
The successfully executed launch allowed Soyuz MS-16 to initiate a four-orbit rendezvous profile with the International Space Station, ISS, which passed over the launch site minutes before the liftoff.
If everything went as planned, the spacecraft was scheduled to dock at the MIM2 Poisk module, a part of the outpost's Russian Segment, at 17:16 Moscow Time (10:16 a.m. EDT), around six hours after liftoff and six orbit-changing maneuvers.
The Russian mission control in Korolev had the following work timeline for the Soyuz MS-16 rendezvous with ISS on April 9, 2020:
As routinely happens during the smooth rendezvous, mission control advsied the crew to shorten the planned station-keeping phase after the flyaround of the station, resulting in docking at 17:13:21 Moscow Time (10:13 a.m. EDT), as the vehicles were flying over the Northern Atlantic in a 440.9 by 419.3-kilometer orbit. The docking probe of the transport ship was successfully retracted at 17:21:50 Moscow Time and latches on both sides of the docking mechanisms were successfully closed completing the process.
Upon opening hatches between Soyuz MS-16 and the station at 12:28 p.m. EDT, the newly arrived Anatoly Ivanishin, Ivan Vagner and Chris Cassidy joined three members of the Soyuz MS-15 crew Oleg Skripochka, Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir. Their mission is scheduled to end a week later, on April 17, 2020, with a landing in Kazakhstan. The undocking of Soyuz MS-15 will mark the start of Expedition 63 aboard the ISS. The traditional change of command ceremony is scheduled for April 15, when Skripochka will formally transfer the control over the station to Cassidy.
During its 196-day stay aboard the station, the Soyuz MS-16 crew is expected to meet NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are expected to visit the station during the second test flight of SpaceX' Dragon spacecraft, which would also be the first carrying a crew. As of April 6, 2020, the launch of the Space-X Demo-2 mission was expected no earlier than mid-to-late May 2020.
During a pre-launch press-conference on April 8, 2020, Ivanishin said that his crew had been training for a spacewalk to replace a panel on the fluid controller of the Zarya FGB module, which had been continuously delayed since October 2019. However, that spacewalk was cancelled for the Soyuz MS-16 crew as was all the work on the exterior of the station that Ivanishin's crew had been training for in case of the arrival of the MLM Nauka module. As a result, no planned spacewalks remained on the crew's schedule at the time of the Soyuz MS-16 launch.
At the time of the launch, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft was scheduled to return to Earth with the same crew on October 22, 2020.
Soyuz MS-16 crews:
Official logo of the Soyuz MS-16 mission. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft during unloading from a shipment rail car shortly after arrival to Baikonur on November 26, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-16 crew poses for pictures in the tarmac of the Krainy airfield shortly after arrival at Baikonur on March 24, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-16 crew members conduct familiarization inside Soyuz MS-16 on March 26, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-16 begins the final pre-launch processing after the completion of fueling on March 28, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Specialsts at RKK Energia conduct their final inspection of the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft at Site 254 in Baikonur on April 1, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz 2-1a rocket with Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft is being erected on the launch pad at Site 31 on April 6, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Ivan Vagner during suiting up operations several hours before launch on April 9, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin and other officials were wearing masks during the crew boarding operations on the launch pad on April 9, 2020, due to coronavirus pandemic. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-16 lifts off on April 9, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Ground camera view of the first stage separation during the launch of the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft on April 9, 2020. Credit: Roskosmos
Temperature sensors deploy on the aft skirt of the aggregate compartment as seen by a camera aboard Soyuz MS-16. Credit: NASA
Separation of the third stage as seen by a camera aboard Soyuz MS-16. Credit: NASA
Deployment of solar panel moments after separation of the third stage as seen by a camera aboard Soyuz MS-16. Credit: NASA
Soyuz MS-16 maneuvers during its flyaround of the ISS on April 9, 2020. Credit: NASA