Russian Space Agency Makes Two Day Trip to ISS in Under Six Hours

By Max Eddy on August 2, 2012 5:46 PM EDT

Progress Resupply
New technology and a new approach made a speedy trip to the International Space Station possible. Photo of a similar mission from 2011. (Photo: Wikipedia / NASA)

Normally, when an automated Russian Progress resupply ship blasts off, it takes a leisurely two days to reach the International Space Station. However, Progress M-16M took a different approach, taking less than six hours to reach the orbiting outpost.

The trouble with reaching the ISS is that it cannot adjust its orbit to meet arriving spacecraft. This means that anything headed to the station needs to reorient itself in order to approach properly. For the Progress and manned Soyuz missions, this normally requires a two day trip.

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After the Progress spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, M-16M underwent a number of fast course corrections early in the mission. This was made possible by a new digital guidance system recently added to the Progress spacecraft. According to NASASpaceFlight.com, Progress craft can only receive instructions from a ground station when directly overhead. With the digital system, the Progress craft can follow pre-set instructions and carry out the critical engine burns autonomously.

The new flight plan is a major improvement for a number of reasons. For one, it could facilitate faster delivery to the ISS, including perishable cargo. Perhaps more importantly, it would save a lot of stress on astronauts flying to the station aboard manned Soyuz spacecraft. During the normal two day flight, astronauts have to spend the entire time in extremely cramped confines.

Trimming 42-odd hours off the trip will certainly make things easier for travelers to the station, though reportedly there won't be any manned fast-track missions until next year.

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