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Final Soyuz-FG rocket delivers ISS crew
The 70th and last Soyuz-FG rocket variant lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 25, 2019, with a crew of three heading to the International Space Station, ISS, aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. The launch marked the last scheduled use of the historic Gagarin's pad at Site 1, which was the place of departure for the first Sputnik and for the Vostok spacecraft delivering the first human being into orbit. The spacecraft successfully docked at ISS around six hours after launch.
Soyuz MS-15 mission at a glance:
Soyuz MS-15 mission
The Soyuz MS-15 transport vehicle was slated to deliver two members of the 61st and 62nd long-duration expeditions to the orbital outpost for a half-a-year stay in orbit and a commercial passenger from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, for a short visit lasting around a week. The primary crew ultimately assigned to the Soyuz MS-15 mission included Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, a US astronaut Jessica Meir and a citizen from the United Arab Emirates, UAE, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. According to RKK Energia, the prime developer of the Soyuz MS series, the vehicle was also expected to carry around 180 kilograms of cargo, including 10 kilograms of fresh fruits and vegetables for the station's inhabitants.
According to an earlier plan, the UAE passenger was to launch on April 5, 2019, aboard the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft and, after a 10-day flight, hitchhike back to Earth the returning on Soyuz MS-10 on April 15, 2019. However, the latter vehicle, which carried only two crew members, never made it to orbit due to a launch vehicle failure. In the meantime, two candidates from UAE began training at Star City in September 2018.
Soon after the Soyuz MS-10 accident on October 11, 2018, NASA re-confirmed its plans to add its second astronaut to the Soyuz MS-12 crew and thus leaving no free seats aboard the three-seat vehicle during launch. As a result, the only other way to provide an extra seat for the returning space tourist would be bumping the return of one of the professional astronauts to a later mission.
As of the end of February 2019, Roskosmos was yet to get a final agreement with NASA about the potential use of one seat on the Soyuz MS-15 to launch a passenger from UAE. To accommodate the short visit, NASA had to agree to extend the flight of a US astronaut aboard the ISS to as long as one year. The mission extension for a NASA crew member would free the return seat for a tourist on the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft, which was scheduled for landing on Oct. 3, 2019.
Moreover, according to the original schedule, the launch of Soyuz MS-15 was planned for Oct. 18, 2019, or after the planned departure of Soyuz MS-12 on October 3, 2019, after 203 days in space.
In order to overlap the two missions at the ISS, by the beginning of 2019, Roskosmos evaluated advancing the planned launch of Soyuz MS-15 to September 23 and, later, to September 25.
The September 25 launch date was formally confirmed in the official ISS flight manifest, which was approved by Roskosmos on February 25, 2019. According to that document, Soyuz MS-15 was expected to remain in orbit for 187 days, implying a return to Earth on March 29, 2020. As an unintended consequence of flight schedule reshuffle, three transport vehicles would be docked at the station simultaneously for eight days and the station's crew would count nine people from September 25 until October 3, 2019, instead of the usual six persons.
By the time of its launch in September 2019, the landing of Soyuz MS-15 was shifted to April 2020. During its return to Earth, Andrew Morgan, who launched on Soyuz MS-13 in July 2019, will catch a ride home.
Preparations for flight
The final Soyuz-FG rocket arrives at Site 1 in Baikonur on the morning of September 23, 2019.
After completion of their training at Star City, the primary and backup crews flew to Baikonur on September 10, 2019, for familiarization with the flight-worthy Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. The crews sat inside the vehicle undergoing final preparations at the processing building at Site 254 on September 11, 2019.
The technical management then cleared Soyuz MS-15 for fueling and loading of pressurized gases, which started on September 12. On the same day, inside the vehicle assembly building at Site 112 specialists completed the integration of the four boosters of the first stage and the core booster of the second stage for the mission's Soyuz-FG rocket.
Fueling operations with the spacecraft were completed on September 14 and the vehicle was installed back in its processing rig at Site 254 for further operations. On September 16, the Soyuz MS-15 was installed on top of the adapter ring serving as an interface with the Soyuz FG launch vehicle. On September 18, specialists conducted the final visual inspection of the spacecraft and then rolled it inside its protective fairing.
On September 20, the crews conducted their second and final familiarization training inside Soyuz MS-15, this time, boarding the vehicle through the hatch in the payload fairing. Inside, the crew members checked the position of cargo and tested various systems, including the communications gear. Next time, only the primary crew would board the spacecraft on the launch pad for the actual liftoff into orbit.
After the familiarization training, the crews conducted a series of traditional activities, including a visit to the vehicle assembly building at Site 112, where they posed for photographers in front of their partially assembled Soyuz-FG launch vehicle and a visit to the Baikonur museum. In the meantime, the payload section, including the spacecraft, the fairing and the launch vehicle adapter was lowered into horizontal position, loaded on a railway trailer and transported to the vehicle assembly building at Site 112 for integration with its Soyuz-FG rocket. On September 21, the emergency escape rocket was connected to the payload fairing and the payload section was then attached to third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket. Finally, the resulting upper composite was integrated with the two booster stages, completing the assembly of the launch vehicle. On the same day, the State Commission overseeing the preparations for launch gave the green light to the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad at Site 1. The rollout operations traditionally took place in the following morning.
How Soyuz MS-15 was launched
The rocket followed a standard ascent profile to reach an initial orbit around the Earth with an inclination 51.6 degrees toward the Equator.
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.
Following a nearly nine-minute climb to orbit, the third stage of the rocket released the transport ship at 17:06:31 Moscow Time, close enough to the ISS to allow an automated rendezvous and docking with the station after just four orbits or less than six hours in the autonomous flight.
According to the Russian mission control in Korolev, the launch vehicle released the spacecraft into an initial orbit with the following parameters:
The Soyuz MS-15 was scheduled to dock at aft port of the Zvezda Service Module, a part of the Russian Segment of the International Space Station, ISS, at 22:45 Moscow Time (3:45 p.m. EDT) on the day of the launch with the time of docking approximated to around three minutes.
Since the approach was going smoothly, mission control advised the crew aboard Soyuz MS-15 to skip the usual station-keeping mode near the station and proceed directly to final approach after performing the flyaround of the outpost to align the transport ship with the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module.
As a result, the first contact between the spacecraft and the station took place around three minutes ahead of schedule at 22:42 Moscow Time (3:42 p.m. EDT), as the vehicles were flying over the Southern Pacific, off the coast of Chile.
According to Russian mission control, the post-docking activities had the following timeline during the night from September 25 to September 26:
According to NASA, hatches between the transport ship and the vehicle were to be opened around two hours after docking, at approximately 5:45 p.m. EDT on September 25 (00:45 Moscow Time on September 26).
At the time of its arrival to the ISS, the Soyuz MS-15 was expected to complete its mission in April 2020. In preparation for its landing, on September 27, 2019, a custom-built seat-liner made for Hazaa Al Mansoori was removed from Soyuz MS-15 and installed aboard Soyuz MS-12.
The three members of the 62nd long-duration expedition on the International Space Station are ready to return home aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft on April 17, 2020, after a 205-day flight. During its ride back to Earth, the ship will carry two out of three of its original crew members: the Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka (sitting in center seat) and NASA astronaut Jessica Meir (taking left seat). A commercial passenger from the United Arab Emirates, Hazzaa Ali Almonsoori, who was aboard Soyuz MS-15 during its launch to the ISS on September 25, 2019, returned to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-12 on October 3, 2019. His seat aboard Soyuz MS-15 (on the right side of the vehicle) on its return trip will be occupied by NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, who flew to the station in July 2019 aboard Soyuz MS-13 and logged 272 days in space.
The undocking of Soyuz MS-15 marked the start of Expedition 63 aboard the ISS. The traditional change of command ceremony between the two expeditions was conducted on April 15, when Skripochka formally transferred control over the station to Chris Cassidy, who arrived aboard Soyuz MS-16 just a week earlier, on April 9, 2020.
In preparation for the landing, the crew of Soyuz MS-15 transferred inside the vehicle and closed hatches to the transfer compartment of the Zvezda Service Module at 01:44 Moscow Time on April 17 (6:44 p.m. EDT on April 16).
After a series of checks, the transport ship undocked from the aft port on the Zvezda module at 04:53:30 Moscow Time on April 17 (9:53:30 p.m. EDT on April 16), as the two vehicles were flying over Eastern Mongolia.
Reentry and landing
Following nearly 2.5 hours in autonomous flight, Soyuz MS-16 fired its main engine against the direction of the flight to initiate a braking maneuver at 07:22 Moscow Time (12:22 a.m. EDT) on April 17, 2020. The engine firing lasted 4 minutes 41 seconds and delivered 128 meters per second in velocity change – enough to initiate the reentry. At the time, the spacecraft was around 32 kilometers from ISS.
The Descent Module of the Soyuz spacecraft touched down 147 kilometers south-east of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, close to a scheduled time of 08:16:43 Moscow Time (1:16 a.m. EDT). It was 11:17 local time at the planned landing site with coordinates 47°21' North latitude, 69°32' East longitude.
Rescue personnel reported the capsule on its side after the touchdown.
According to Roskosmos, as of April 15, 2020, the return to Earth for the Soyuz MS-15 on April 17, 2020, was expected to follow this timeline:
Due to coronavirus pandemic, officials at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center considered placing the Soyuz MS-15 crew under a 14-day quarantine after landing due to new measures imposed by Kazakhstan on all foreigners crossing its border, RIA Novosti reported on March 31, 2020. Also, all members of the search and rescue team participating in the Soyuz MS-15 recovery operations were reported undergoing tests for coronavirus in addition to regular medical checkups routinely conducted ahead of such operations.
However, NASA announced on April 13 that after the landing, Russian helicopters would return all three members of the crew to the Russian launch site of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, instead of Kazakh city of Karaganda which was normally used for post-landing operations in recent years. Following the arrival in Baikonur, the US astronauts will have to make a 3-hour road trip by ambulance to an airfield at the nearby city of Kyzyl-Orda where a NASA Gulfstream-5 jet got a permission to land for a subsequent flight to Houston, Texas, with US members of Soyuz MS-15 crew. In the meantime, Skripochka was to fly directly from Baikonur's airfield to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow.
With the departure of Soyuz MS-15 crew, Expedition 63 was expected to include the three members of the Soyuz MS-16 crew until the arrival of two astronauts aboard the US Crew Dragon vehicle, then expected to lift off on May 27, 2020.
Soyuz MS-15 crews:
The official logo of the Soyuz MS-15 mission. Credit: NASA
Soyuz MS-15 is being prepared for the installation of its payload fairing on September 18, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia
The crew of Soyuz MS-15 arrives at Baikonur on September 10, 2019 (right to left): Oleg Skripochka, Jessica Meir and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Dressed in their Sokol pressure suits, the members of the primary crew walk to the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft for familiarization training in the processing building at Site 254 in Baikonur on September 11, 2019, (left to right): Oleg Skripochka, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori and Jessica Meir. Click to enlarge. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 is being integrated with its launch vehicle adapter on September 16, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 is being lowered into horizontal position for integration with its payload fairing on September 18, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Oleg Skripochka boards the Descent Module of the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft through the hatch connecting it to the Habitation Module during the final familiarization training on September 20, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Soyuz MS-15 crew boards spacecraft on September 25, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
Four boosters of the first stage and the escape rocket are seen separating during the launch of Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft on September 25, 2019. Credit: NASA
Separation of the third stage as seen by an external camera aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Soyuz MS-15 approaches ISS during the night from September 25 to 26, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
Soyuz MS-15 undocks from ISS on April 17, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA
Descent Module of Soyuz MS-15 conducts parachute landing on April 17, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Descent Module of Soyuz MS-15 conducts parachute landing on April 17, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Rescue personnel helicopters arrive at the landing site of Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft on April 17, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Search and rescue specialists approach descent modue of Soyuz MS-15 after it landed on its side. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Crew of Soyuz MS-15 shortly after landing as seen by rescue personnel on April 17, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
A scene at the landing site of Soyuz MS-15. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Crew of Soyuz MS-15 shortly after extraction from the descent module at the landing site. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos