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Soyuz crew in close-call docking with ISS

The Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft lifted off on Dec. 15, 2015, carrying three members of the 46th and 47th long-duration expeditions onboard the International Space Station, ISS. Being the 45th Soyuz vehicle heading to the outpost, the mission has a designation 45S in the outpost's official flight manifest. The spacecraft and its crew are scheduled to remain in orbit until June 5, 2016.

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At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia (left to right): Tim Peake of ESA, Yuri Malenchenko of Roskosmos, and Tim Kopra of NASA during final qualification exams.


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Soyuz TMA-19M mission at a glance:

Spacecraft Soyuz TMA-19M
Launch vehicle Soyuz-FG
Launch site Baikonur, Site 1, Pad 5
Crew Yuri Malenchenko (Roskosmos), Timothy Kopra (NASA), Timothy Peake (ESA)
Backup crew Anatoly Ivanishin (Roskosmos), Kate Rubins (NASA), Takuya Onishi (JAXA)
Launch date and time 2015 Dec. 15, 14:03:09 Moscow Time
Docking date and time 2015 Dec. 15, 20:24 Moscow Time
Docking destination ISS, Russian segment, MIM1 Rassvet, -Y axis
Landing date 2016 June 5
Mission duration 173 days

Pre-launch activities


The launch of Soyuz TMA-19M was originally scheduled for Nov. 23, 2015, however, after the loss of the Progress M-27M cargo ship in April 2015, the ISS flight schedule had a domino effect of delays. The Soyuz TMA-19M mission was eventually re-scheduled for December 15, 2015.

On December 1, 2015, primary and backup crews conducted a familiarization training on the nearly flight-ready Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft installed inside its processing facility at Site 254. On the same day, the technical management of the mission gave go ahead to load toxic propellants and pressurized gases into the tanks of the spacecraft. This irreversible operation was completed on Dec. 3, 2015, after which the spacecraft was returned to its processing facility. The next day, the spacecraft was attached to the launch vehicle adapter, PO, and lowered into horizontal position for integration with the payload fairing.

On Dec. 8, 2015, engineers conducted the final inspection of the ship and it was encapsulated inside the fairing. The primary and backup crews had a final chance to get inside the ship on December 10, before one of the trio would have to board it on the launch pad. The next day, the fully assembled payload section was transferred from Site 254 to the launch vehicle processing building at Site 112 for integration with its Soyuz-FG rocket.

The launch vehicle with the spacecraft was rolled out to the launch pad at Site 1 in Baikonur on the morning of December 13, 2015.

Soyuz TMA-19M lifts off

The launch of the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle carrying the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft took place as scheduled on Dec. 15, 2015, at 14:03:09.328 Moscow Time (06:03 EST) from Pad No. 1 in Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The launch vehicle propelled by the simultaneous thrust of four engines of the first stage and one engine of the second stage headed east to align its ascent trajectory with the orbital plane inclined 51.67 degrees toward the Equator. Slightly less than two minutes into the flight, the ship's emergency escape system separated immediately followed by four boosters of the first stage. The second (core) stage of the booster continued to fire for less than five minutes into the flight. Moments before its separation, the four-chamber engine of the third stage ignited, firing through a lattice structure connecting two boosters. Following the separation of the core booster, the tail section of the third stage split into three segments and fell away.

The spacecraft separated from the third stage of the launch vehicle at 14:11:58 Moscow Time (06:11 EST). According to post-launch report from the Russian mission control in Korolev, the vehicle's initial parking orbit was within specifications:

Planned orbit
Actual orbit
Orbital period
88.64 minutes (+/-0.367)
88.74 minutes
51.67 degrees (+/-0.058)
51.64 degrees
200 kilometers (+7/-22)
200.75 kilometers
242 kilometers (+/-42)
253.08 kilometers

Without any additional maneuvers the spacecraft would remain in orbit for around 20 revolutions around the Earth during the next 30 hours, before reentering into the Earth's atmosphere.


Automated docking aborted, performed manually

Upon reaching orbit, the Soyuz TMA-19M ended up 28.1 degrees away from the ISS. At the time, the station was orbiting the Earth in a 402.41 by 415.29-kilometer orbit with an inclination 51.66 degrees.

The mutual position of the two spacecraft would allow docking on the day of the launch (December 15) within six hours after launch. The Soyuz was scheduled to conduct four orbital maneuvers, which would bring the spacecraft into the vicinity of the station by the beginning of the fifth orbit of the Soyuz TMA-19M mission:

Orbit No.
Firing duration
delta V
Resulting perigee
Resulting apogee
71.1 seconds
28.54 m/s
89.62 minutes
51.64 degrees
229.63 kilometers
297.29 kilometers
58.4 seconds
23.57 m/s
90.44 minutes
51.64 degrees
296.53 kilometers
323.45 kilometers
18.2 seconds
7.00 m/s
90.69 minutes
51.67 degrees
298.06 kilometers
336.85 kilometers
18.2 seconds
7.00 m/s
90.94 minutes
51.64 degrees
318.87 kilometers
337.34 kilometers

Based on the results of radio-measurements of the ship's actual orbit, the ballistic navigation service of the Russian mission control was to issue navigational data on the mutual position of the two vehicles around three hours before docking. Following its orbit corrections, Soyuz TMA-19M began an autonomous rendezvous with the ISS around 18:15:55 Moscow Time (10:15 a.m. EST).

The final maneuvers, including flyaround, a short station-keeping period and berthing, were scheduled to be initiated at 20:01:07 Moscow Time (12:01 EST) in fully automated mode. The docking of Soyuz TMA-19M with the ISS was scheduled on the day of the launch at 20:24:09 Moscow Time (12:24:09 EST). The spacecraft was to berth at the nadir (Earth-facing) docking port of the MIM1 Rassvet module on the Russian segment of the outpost.

However, around 20:15 Moscow Time (12:15 p.m. EST), just few meters from the station, the Kurs automated rendezvous system suddenly aborted the approach and fired attitude-control thrusters, DPO, forcing the ship away from the station. The crew immediately switched to manual control, stopped backward movement of the spacecraft and after several minutes of re-alignment with the docking port, Yuri Malenchenko manually guided the spacecraft to a successful docking at 20:33:29 Moscow Time (12:33 p.m. EST), around nine minutes behind schedule.

During the rendezvous process and after docking, controllers at the Russian mission control center in Korolev reported that they had not received necessary telemetry to monitor the mission.

The hatches between the transport ship and the station were opened at 22:58 Moscow Time (2:58 p.m. EST) on December 15, around half an hour later than scheduled.

Docking problem identified


Although there was no immediate official explanation for the aborted automated rendezvous between the Soyuz TMA-19M and the ISS, a commentator with the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine quickly narrowed down a culprit in the failure of the DPO-B No. 20 attitude-control thruster. This small engine is a part of the two independent engine clusters known as Circuit 1 and Circuit 2. Distributed around the ship's instrument module, PAO, both groups of small engines are used to fine-tune the spacecraft's orientation in space and to conduct low-thrust maneuvers. The particular engine provides a sideway thrust along -Y axis in the ship's coordinate system.

As the available video and audio footage reveals, at a distance of around 17 meters from the station, an alarm sounded in the Soyuz's cockpit, while the overlay display on the rendezvous camera showed "No SDK (combustion chamber pressure or valve signal) along -Y axis (K1B)." The K1B likely stands for Collector 1 (Manifold 1). That alarm was followed by another warning, which can be translated as "Total failure of the K1B manifold." In addition, the "A: DPOB 20" message, indicating a problem with the particular thruster and the numeric code for the failure type was also displayed.

Immediately thereafter, the Soyuz began backing away from the station still under the automated control. Malenchenko reported to mission control that the crew received the DPOB 20-type failure.

For a reason yet to be explained, the automated system apparently failed to switch to a backup circuit available just for such a contingency.

After switching to manual controls, it took the Soyuz commander two attempts to put the spacecraft into right orientation and complete the docking. During the first try, the spacecraft began a seemingly faster-than-normal approach to the station. It also appeared that the spacecraft made a sudden sideway turn just meters from the docking port, though a further evaluation indicated that the spacecraft might've been out of alignment from the outset and its wrong position became more obvious as the spacecraft approached.

Fortunately, Malenchenko quickly managed to stabilize the spacecraft, restore its alignment with a docking port on the MIM1 Rassvet module and complete the second manual docking attempt.

Shortly after docking, Malenchenko explained mission control that during his first manual approach attempt he could not see the docking port clear enough and only realized the problem at the last minute.

According to the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, a similar problem with DPO thrusters also prevented an automated docking of the Progress M-05M cargo ship in 2010 and required the crew onboard the station to use the remote control to complete the process.

Close-call docking scrutinized

According to veterans of the Russian space program who witnessed the failed manual docking attempt between the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft and the ISS, a potential disaster was narrowly avoided which is reminiscent of the nearly catastrophic collision between the Mir space station and a Progress cargo ship in 1997.

The investigation into the incident during docking on December 15 concluded that the failed chamber pressure sensor in the attitude control thruster No. 20 (DPO-20) had caused the failure of the automated rendezvous process. The thruster itself apparently functioned as planned. At the same time, serious questions were also raised about the actions of the crew and mission control in emergency, industry sources said.

The Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko, one of the most experienced space flyers in the Russian cosmonaut corps, took over controls immediately after the automated system had commanded the Soyuz to back away from the station after bringing the ship within just 17 meters from its destination.

Not surprisingly, Malenchenko's actions during his initial nearly disastrous manual docking attempt came under scrutiny to identify possible pilot errors. According to industry sources, the Soyuz commander's problems likely stem from poor lighting, which prevented him from clearly seeing docking targets on the MIM1 Rassvet module. Yet, instead of waiting for better conditions, the pilot pressed ahead with a nearly blind approach only to find his ship positioned out of alignment with the docking port and moving above the speed limit for safe berthing, sources said. The ship's Kurs rendezvous antenna also apparently lost its lock on the target. Critics suggest that the pilot might have been under pressure from mission control to complete docking as soon as possible.

At the time of the aborted automated approach, the Soyuz was around three minutes from entering Earth's shadow, which would require to conduct all manual operations under night-time conditions. Moreover, in another 15 minutes, the Soyuz and ISS would go out of range of communications with the mission control in Korolev.

At the peak of the crisis, the flight director for the Russian segment of the ISS Vladimir Soloviev, himself a veteran of two space missions and a towering figure in the Russian space establishment, called on the crew, essentially jumping over both, the head of the on-duty team, SRP, and the chief communications officer. Although Soloviev is well known for his hands-on management style, critics charged that his involvement could place an undue sense of urgency on Malenchenko, at a time when a calm and collected response was needed. In any case, Malenchenko failed to do something he had done hundreds of times in the simulator, critics charged. Fortunately, within minutes after the near collision, Malenchenko was able to stabilize the spacecraft and complete the second manual docking attempt successfully.

Engineers are now analyzing all the available telemetry, as well as video and audio data in order to recreate the exact sequence of events and to model the Soyuz' approach trajectory during the botched docking attempt.

(To be continued)


Flight program

Aboard the ISS, the crew of Soyuz TMA-19M joined three other members of Expedition 46: Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov. Expedition 46 officially started with the departure of Soyuz TMA-17M on Dec. 11, 2015. Expedition 46 should conclude on March 1, 2016, when the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is scheduled to head back to Earth with Kelly, Kornienko and Volkov onboard.

In the meantime, the Soyuz TMA-19M is expected to remain docked at the ISS until June 5, 2015, overlapping with Expedition 47.

Soyuz TMA-19M will depart with the same crew it had carried on its way up. Both will log 173 days in space, even though, according to original plans, the mission was to last 142 days until May 5, 2015.



On February 3, 2016, a pair of Russian cosmonauts from Expedition 46, including Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko and his counterpart Sergey Volkov from the Soyuz TMA-18M crew, successfully conducted a four-hour 45-minute spacewalk out of the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, on the Russian segment of the station. According to Roskosmos, the spacewalk was originally scheduled to last five hours 26 minutes.

Both spacewalkers were wearing Russian Orlan spacesuits with blue stripes. Malenchenko was designated as extravehicular crew member 1 (EV1). Volkov was designated extravehicular crew member 2 (EV2).

At the beginning, the cosmonauts completed a symbolic tasks launching into space a flash drive with messages, which had been recorded onboard the ISS in May 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II.

During one of the early tasks, the cosmonauts conducted the Test experiment, taking samples from the exterior of their EVA hatch and from the driving mechanism of the cover on the window No. 8 of the Zvezda service module, SM.

Key goal of the spacewalk was to retrieve the Expose-R experiment, a collection of biological and biochemical samples placed in the harsh environment of space. The Expose program is part of the European Space Agency's research into astrobiology, or the study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. The cosmonauts then installed Vynoslivost ("endurance") pallet No. 2 on the Poisk module, MIM-2. Around the same location, Malenchenko and Volkov replaced a cassette No. 2-M2, also containing samples for long-duration exposure in space. They also adjusted the position of the pressure-control unit on the MIM-2.

In the final phase of the spacewalk, the cosmonauts conducted the Restavratsiya ("restoration") experiment, which tested an adhesive tape system for the possible attachment of thermal shielding on spacecraft. Cosmonauts also installed soft railings on the conical section No. 3 of the Zarya Control Module, FGB.

The cosmonauts also conducted extensive photography of the external surfaces of the Russian segment of the International Space Station.

The work outside the station was officially concluded with the hatch closing at 20:40 Moscow Time (12:40 p.m. EST).

The 194th spacewalk onboard the ISS was the sixth for Malenchenko and the fourth for Volkov.

Soyuz TMA-19M lands successfully in Kazakhstan


On June 6, 2016, the State Commission overseeing Russian ISS operations made a decision to postpone the landing of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft from June 5 to June 18, 2016, "to increase the efficiency of cosmonauts' work." According to Roskosmos, to improve safety during the upcoming flight of the Soyuz-MS spacecraft to the ISS, it was decided to conduct additional software tests, which, in turn required to postpone its launch from June 24 to July 7, 2016, at 04:36 Moscow Time. The launch of the Progress MS-03 cargo ship was postponed from July 7 to July 17, 2016.

The same crew members, who rode Soyuz TMA-19M into orbit in December 2015, will be onboard during the return to Earth after 186 days in space: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, the Soyuz commander; NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra, Expedition 47 commander; and a European astronaut Timothy Peake, Expedition 47 flight engineer. They represent the 47th long-duration expedition onboard the ISS.

In preparation for landing, the crew closed hatches separating Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft from the MIM1 Rassvet module at 10:34 p.m. EDT on June 17, 2016. Crew members then donned their Sokol entry suits and took their seats in the descent module: Malenchenko in the center position, Kopra to his left and Peake to his right.

The undocking of Soyuz TMA-19M from the MIM1 Rassvet module on the Russian segment of the ISS took place as scheduled over Mongolia on June 18, 2016, at 08:52:30 Moscow Time (1:52 a.m. EDT), during the ship's 2,893rd revolution around the planet. At the same time, the station was completing its 100,516th orbit.

The undocking command was sent to the docking mechanism on the Soyuz a minute and a half before the physical separation between the outpost and the transport ship.

After three minutes in solo flight, Soyuz TMA-19M fired its attitude control thrusters for eight seconds at 08:55:30 Moscow Time (1:55 a.m. EDT) to increase distance from the ISS. A similar 30-second maneuver was conducted one minute 20 seconds later, at 08:56:50 Moscow Time (1:56 a.m. EDT) on June 18.

On the same day, at 11:22:07 Moscow Time (4:22 a.m. EDT), the spacecraft fired its main engine against the direction of the flight for four minutes and 37 seconds, initiating a braking maneuver and the reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The engine firing slowed down the spacecraft by 128 meters per second, enough to deorbit the vehicle. Immediately, the crew reported that the pressure began dropping as planned in a habitation module of Soyuz before its separation.

Around 23 minutes later, as the spacecraft descended to an altitude of 139 kilometers above the Earth's surface over the Arabian Peninsula, the habitation module and the instrument section separated from the descent module carrying the crew.

Less than three minutes later, the descent module plunged into the the dense atmosphere, which caused the formation of plasma around the vehicle resulting in about five minutes of total communications blockout. At an altitude of 10.8 kilometers, the descent module began the release of its three-tier parachute system, culminating with the opening of the main parachute with a total area of 1,000 square meters.

The descent module of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft was scheduled to touch down 148 kilometers southeast from the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan at 12:14:39 Moscow Time (5:14 a.m. EDT) on June 18, 2016. The landing time was nine hours 50 minutes after local sunrise at 02:25 Moscow Time and six hours seven minutes before local sunset at 18:22 Moscow Time. NASA reported the actual landing time as 5:15 a.m. EDT and Russian officials said that the descent module had landed just eight kilometers off its projected point.

NASA predicted good weather at the landing site with scattered clouds, winds reaching 11 knots and temperature around 80F degrees.

At the primary landing site, the descent module was awaited by search and rescue teams on eight Mi-8 helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft and four all-terrain vehicles. In addition, two helicopters were deployed near the possible landing site in case of a ballistic return and another pair of choppers was near half-way point between two sites.

Search and recovery teams found the descent module of Soyuz TMA-19M on its side after landing.

With the departure of Soyuz TMA-19M, Expedition 48 began aboard the ISS under the command of NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams. Williams and his crewmates Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, who arrived onboard Soyuz TMA-20M, will operate the station for three weeks until the arrival of three new crew members.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are scheduled to launch July 6 (Eastern time) 2016, from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on the Soyuz-MS spacecraft and dock at the station two days later.


Planned landing timeline for Soyuz TMA-19M on June 18, 2016, Moscow Time:

Moscow Time
Altitude, km
Latitude, deg. min
Longitude. deg, min.
Velocity, km/s
Braking engine firing starts
Braking engine firing ends
Spacecraft sections separation
Atmospheric entry
Aerodynamic control starts
Maximum G-loads
Parachute release command
Main parachute opening in case of emergency ballistic descent


*Time is shown as of beginning of June 2016.


Soyuz TMA-19M primary and backup crew (Expedition 46, 47):

Primary crew Backup crew
Yuri Malenchenko, Soyuz commander, Flight engineer for Expedition 46/47 (Roskosmos) Anatoly Ivanishin, Soyuz commander, Roskosmos
Timothy Kopra, Flight engineer for Expedition 46/47 (NASA) Kate Rubins, Flight engineer, NASA
Timothy Peake, Flight engineer for Expedition 46/47, ESA Takuya Onishi, Flight engineer, JAXA


Next mission: Soyuz TMA-20M


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This page is maintained by Anatoly Zak

Last update: October 31, 2020

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Expedition 46 patch. Credit: NASA


The commander of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft Yuri Malenchenko works inside the habitation module of the nearly flight-ready vehicle during a familiarization training on Dec. 1, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia


The commander of the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft Yuri Malenchenko works inside the habitation module of the nearly flight-ready vehicle during a familiarization training on Dec. 1, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia


Soyuz TMA-19M is covered with its payload fairing on Dec. 8, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia


Crew waves good bye to well-wishers before boarding the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Access gantry is retracted from around Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft shortly before liftoff. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M lifts off on Dec. 15, 2015. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


A view of the Soyuz TMA-19M ascent to orbit from the ISS. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M suddenly aborted its approach to the station at around 20:15 Moscow Time on Dec. 15, 2015. Credit: NASA


Soyuz flight control display showed error messages at the time of the failed automated docking. Credit: NASA


During the first attempt to use manual control to approach the ISS, Soyuz TMA-19M deviated from its path. Credit: NASA


View of the nadir (Earth-facing) docking port on the MIM1 Rassvet module. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-18M docked at the Rassvet module. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M crew prepares to board the spacecraft on its way home. Credit: NASA


Hatch closure before the departure of the Soyuz TMA-19M from ISS on June 18, 2016. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M undocks from ISS on June 18, 2016. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M shortly after undocking from ISS on June 18, 2016. Credit: NASA



A view of the ISS from a camera on the departing Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft on June 18, 2016. Credit: NASA


Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M lands on June 18, 2016. Credit: NASA


Soyuz TMA-19M touches down on June 18, 2016. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos


Members of the Soyuz TMA-19M crew shortly after their extraction from the descent module. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos