The Russians have done it again—launched a gang of rocketeers to the International Space Station. The Soyuz rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan just after 6pm local time (If you were watching live in the US, that was 5:03am ET). Among the Soyuz’s precious cargo were one cosmonaut, a pair of astronauts, and a bunch of power cables.
The capsule will reach the ISS about six and a half hours—and three booster stages—after launch. But unlike in the movies, where docking is soon followed by the pssssss of opening airlocks, the Soyuz/ISS airlocks won’t open for about two hours. “Everything in sci-fi happens a million times faster than it really takes in real life, ” says Daniel Huot, a spokesperson for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
This is the 46th expedition to the International Space Station, bringing three newbies to join Scott Kelly of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Volkov and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos. They are astronaut Tim Kopra, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and Tim Peake, Britain’s first astronaut to visit the ISS for the European Space Agency. (Chemist Helen Sharman, who visited the Soviet space station Mir in 1991, was the real first Brit-in-space, but didn’t train with the European Space Agency.)
On the non-human side, sometime in February the SpaceX-9 rocket will (weather and logistics permitting) join Expedition 46. On board will be three rad little science experiments.
The first is BEAM, a 13 feet long, 10 and a half foot diameter inflatable module. Inflatable habitats are a key part of NASA’s space exploration strategy, because they don’t take up a lot of room on the way up. SpaceX-9 will also carry up Microbial Observatory-1, a biology kit for mapping the space station’s microbiome.
But coolest of all is an experiment growing crystals out of disease proteins. Disease proteins are usually too tiny to study under the microscope. So when scientists are researching a new disease, they will grow a bunch of disease proteins into a crystalline structure, basically making a bigger version of the protein by sticking a bunch of little proteins together. Then, by measuring how the crystal diffracts X-rays, they can determine the protein’s atomic structure.
On Earth, gravity tugs on the tiny proteins just enough to create imperfections in the crystal structure. In the ISS’s low gravity, however, the CASIS Protein Crystal Growth-4 can make perfect 3-D crystals, which scientists back on Earth can use to build inhibitors to fight disease. This technique has already been used with some success against a debilitating disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
But all that science doesn’t arrive for another few months. Today’s Soyuz capsule has nothing but a trio of fleshbags. Oh, what’s that? About the cables I mentioned?
Right. Back in November, a thing called a sequential shunt unit failed, cutting the ISS off from one of its eight power channels. That failure didn’t impact normal operations, but if the station’s residents wanted to fire up a whole bunch of stuff at once, they’d be screwed. Think about it in terms of Star Trek: The Enterprise takes a few photon torpedoes to the bow, but is able to defeat the Klingon Bird-of-Prey. “You still have shields, just not as many as you wish you had, ” says Huot. “Like, if more Klingons show up, you’re in trouble.”