Russian launch will double space station crew

Russian, Canadian and European astronauts set to begin six-month mission tomorrow

The International Space Station will become much more crowded later this week and will stay that way for a long time.

A Russian cosmonaut and astronauts from the Canadian and European Space Agencies are scheduled to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:34 a.m. EDT on Wednesday aboard a Soyuz TMA-15 rocket. The crew is slated to rendezvous with the space station at 8:36 a.m. EDT on Friday and remain there until November.

The mission marks the first time that the orbiter has hosted six astronauts for a long stay. Long-term crews have traditionally topped off at three, but recent upgrades to the station's solar generators are giving it enough juice to support six people.

In March, the crew of the space shuttle Discovery successfully set up the last set of energy-harvesting solar arrays that were to be attached to the International Space Station. 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.

The space station has been a busy place so far this year.

Shortly after the Discovery crew finished its work on the orbiter and departed for home, a Russian spacecraft docked with the station, bringing a space tourist for a short visit.

Former Microsoft Corp. executive Charles Simonyi, who helped develop both Microsoft Word and Excel, traveled to the station and spent a total of 14 days in space. This wasn't the first space experience for the Hungarian native. He also flew to the space station in April 2007 with the Expedition 15 crew aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft.

Wednesday's launch to the space station won't involve a space tourist this time.

When all six astronauts are at the space station, though, it will mark the first time that all five of the international partner agencies will be represented onboard.

The Russian rocket will blast off just days after the space shuttle Atlantis landed in California after its mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. After two days of weather delays, the shuttle landed safely (see video) on Sunday at Edwards Air Force Base.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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