Russian rocket blasts off carrying three astronauts to ISS
A newly modernised Russian Soyuz rocket carrying three astronauts to the International Space Station blasted off Friday from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The rocket, carrying two Russians and an American, took off into the night sky on schedule at 3:11 am Moscow time (23:11 GMT Thursday), creating a spectacular yellow light.
Russian space officials said the launch had gone according to plan and the craft successfully went into orbit.
Their Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft is a modernised version of the ship used by Russia to put humans into the space. It is the first such craft to be fully equipped with a digital measuring system and Friday's launch was the first time the new design has been used.
The spacecraft is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:02 am Moscow time (0:02 GMT) on Sunday.
The crew includes one of Russia's most experience spacemen, Alexander Kaleri, whose first mission to space was in in March 1992 just after the fall of the Soviet Union to the now defunct Russian space station Mir.
Kaleri has already made four space flights, logging up 610 days in space and almost 24 hours of spacewalks, his last trip an October 2003 mission to the International Space Station.
Joining him are American Scott Kelly, who has made two spaceflights and Oleg Skripochka, who is making his first space flight.
On board the ISS, where they will spend the next five months, they will join Americans Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker as well as Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin.
"Everyone is feeling good. Everything is fine on board," Kaleri reported back to mission control, images broadcast on state television showed.
Their flight comes after the ISS saw a rare hiccup last month when the return of the Russian Soyuz capsule carrying three crew back to earth was delayed by 24 hours after the Soyuz craft failed to undock from the ISS.
The failure, caused by a small technical fault, was the first such mishap in a decade of ISS flights.
Russian officials also admitted another problem this week when it emerged that Russian Soyuz spacecraft due to launch in December suffered damage to its container in transit on its way to Baikonur.
The Soyuz is due on December 13 to transport Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and NASA astronauts Catherine Coleman and Paolo Nespoli to the ISS.
Engineers spotted damage to the Soyuz TMA-20's transport container after it was shipped by rail to the Baikonur cosmodrome.
Russia's space chief Anatoly Perminov told reporters on Thursday that the ship's components shifted by 2 millimetres as a result "of violations of the transportation rules."
He said he did not expect the problem to have a major impact on the timetable for the launch.
The burden on the Russian space programme is set to grow in the next months as NASA withdraws the space shuttle from service, meaning that the Soyuz craft will for several years be the only vehicle for transporting humans to space.
Two more shuttle flights are currently planned, with Discovery in November and Endeavour in February, although another shuttle flight is also possible later in 2011.
The commander on the Endeavour flight is due to be Scott Kelly's twin brother Mark, meaning that if all goes to plan the two are set for an unprecedented reunion aboard the ISS.
© 2010 AFP