Soyuz rocket blasts off to mark space station milestone

Three astronauts aboard the capsule will double the ISS crew when it docks on Friday

The three astronauts onboard the International Space Station will see their ranks double on Friday.

Their new companions were aboard a Soyuz TMA-15 rocket that blasted off at 6:34 a.m. Eastern time today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan headed for the space station. European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk are traveling to join the crew members who are already on the space station. They are embarking on a six-month stay onboard the space station

When the astronauts rendezvous with the International Space Station on Friday morning, it will mark the first time that a long-term crew of the space station has totaled more than three astronauts. The station has hosted more than three people before but just for short stays or crew turnarounds. This will be the first long stay for a six-person crew.

"Witnessing this launch is a great moment -- a moment of accomplishments that opens up new opportunities... in preparation for new exploration missions to other destinations," said Simonetta di Pippo, the European Space Agency's director of human spaceflight, in a statement. "I am looking forward to a full [six-person] crew onboard the [station] for a full exploitation of its scientific potential. Human spaceflight and exploration is gaining momentum, and we will be working for Europe to seize bigger opportunities in this field."

In March, the crew of NASA's space shuttle Discovery successfully set up a set of energy-harvesting solar arrays that were to be attached to the International Space Station and made the move to an expanded crew possible. The solar arrays, which are 230 feet long when spread open and weigh nearly 5,000 pounds on Earth, are designed to gather energy through 32,800 solar cells and then transfer that power to the space station's batteries.

The solar arrays will produce enough energy to power 42 2,800-square-foot homes. That will double the amount of power that goes to science experiments onboard the station.

The extra capacity also allows the space station to support a crew of six to eight astronauts for several months.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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