A Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasted off to the International Space Station today (Dec. 15), launching three new crewmates to the orbiting outpost.
The Soyuz TMA-20 took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:09 p.m. EST (1909 GMT) with NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli.
Kondratyev is commander of the two-day Soyuz trip to the International Space Station. The trio is expected to dock at the station on Friday (Dec. 17) at 3:12 p.m. EST (2012 GMT). [Graphic: Inside and Out: The International Space Station]
Several days before launch, Nespoli shared details about his Soyuz vehicle on Twitter, where he posts updates under the name @Astro_Paolo.
"The Soyuz: small but reliable. 8min 30sec to Low Earth orbit & 48 hrs to catch-up with the ISS!" Nespoli wrote.
Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli are beginning a roughly 5 1/2-month mission at the space station, where they will conduct scientific research and space station maintenance. Kondratyev is also expected to perform at least one spacewalk.
The Soyuz TMA-20 spaceflyers will make up the remainder of the station's Expedition 26 crew when they join the three astronauts already living onboard the orbiting outpost. Station commander Scott Kelly of NASA and flight engineers Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka of Russia have been living at the station since early October.
Today's spaceflight is the third for Coleman, the second for Nespoli, and the first for Kondratyev.
"This is my first flight and I need to learn from my friends everything on the station and get ready to be a commander for the second time, for second part of the mission, so that's quite challenging for me, but I have support from all of my crew members so they understand and I think there won't be any problems," Kondratyev said in a preflight interview.
Over the course of their mission, Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will oversee the arrival of two unmanned cargo supply ships ? one from Europe and the other from Japan. They will also host two final space shuttle missions before their retirement ? Discovery's STS-133, which is scheduled for early February, and Endeavour's STS-134, which is expected to fly in April.
Throughout their time on the space station, Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will also be engaged in educational outreach.
Nespoli will be conducting tests on a special greenhouse that he is bringing to the orbiting laboratory. Students all over the world are invited to follow the progress of the experiment.
"We'll do observations of the plant to figure out how it grows in space and on the ground," Nespoli told SPACE.com in a preflight interview. "It lets the kids see that even with simple things, they can approach them with a scientific mentality and start thinking in that direction. This is a great program that helps let people know that we can use the station in a lot of good ways."
Nespoli will also use ESA's novel 3-D camera to capture unprecedented images of the station.
And in their spare time, the spaceflyers are hoping to savor the experience of living on the space station.
"I'm excited about trying to somehow convey the experience of living in space back home," Coleman said in a preflight interview. "I'm also going to bring my flute. I'll bring music that I can listen to and play at the same time. I'll also be blogging, video blogging and taking pictures. And I can't wait to look out the window."
- Graphic: Inside and Out: The International Space Station
- Gallery: Space Windows on the World
- Earth at Night: Astronaut Shares Dazzling Photos From Space Station
SPACE.com will provide complete coverage of the Expedition 26 crew's mission to the International Space Station. Click here for mission updates and launch updates. The Soyuz TMA-19 will dock at the station on Friday, Dec. 17 at 3:12 p.m. EST.
You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.