Russia's Soyuz space capsule takes shortcut to International Space Station


The Soyuz TMA-08M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 29, 2013. Five hours and 45 minutes later, the capsule was at the International Space Station.


NASA/Carla Cioffi

Russia's Soyuz-TMA space capsule and its three crew reached the International Space Station early this morning in record-breaking time.

Less than six hours passed between Soyuz blasting off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and docking at the ISS some 250 miles above Earth.

That's around 45 hours quicker than anyone has ever made the trip before.

While the usual flight path involves orbiting the Earth some 40 times before docking, Russian engineers have developed a new steering technique that allow spacecraft to make the journey in just four orbits.

It involves launching the capsule just after the ISS orbits overhead, then using a combination of powerful new thrusters and precise ballistic maneuvers to cover the 1,000 miles to the ISS.

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Unmanned Russia cargo craft have tested the shortcut three times before, but this was the first time a manned ship had attempted it.

Today's success is good news for space crew, who will no longer have to spend two days or more inside a cramped capsule feeling the effects of microgravity, which only kick in after around four to five hours in flight.

It also bodes well for the scientific research being carried out onboard the ISS, since capsules will now be able to deliver perishable biological materials that otherwise would have been spoiled by the time they arrived.

"With such a short time the crew could even take an ice cream – it would not be able to melt," joked veteran Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who along with colleague Alexander Misurkin and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy manned the landmark flight.

According to Vinogradov, Russia's engineers are already working out how they can reduce the journey even further to just two orbits.