Olympic rings are seen at the Soyuz launch pad shortly after the Soyuz TMA-11M rocket was erected into position on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
A Russian rocket is counting down to launch toward the International Space Station tonight (Nov. 6) with some unusual cargo: an Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games and three space travelers representing Russia, the U.S. and Japan.
NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will blast off toward the orbiting lab aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 11:14 p.m. EST (0414 Nov. 7 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. You can watch the Soyuz launch live here on SPACE.com starting at 10:15 p.m. EST (0315 GMT).
Riding with the spaceflyers is an aluminum and red Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The torch won't be lit on the Soyuz or space station, but it will be carried outside the orbiting lab into the vacuum of space on Saturday (Nov. 9) during a spacewalk by Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy. [Photos: New Space Station Crew Prepares for Launch]
The space station crew is not the first set of spaceflyers to carry the Olympic torch on its journey to Sochi. Legendary cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to launch into space, relayed the flame last month.
On Sunday (Nov. 10), the torch will return to Earth on another Soyuz that's bringing back three members of the station's Expedition 37 crew: NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, the European Space Agency's Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. The trio arrived at the space station in May and are wrapping up a 5 1/2-month mission.
When the returning space travelers undock from the station's Zvezda service module on Sunday, the station's Expedition 38 mission will officially begin with the six astronauts remaining on board. That mission will run through March 2014, when Kotov, Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins are scheduled to return home from the space station.
Wakata, who launches tonight, is slated to become the first Japanese astronaut to command the space station. He will also be taking part in a novel experiment to test how robots fare as companions for spaceflyers. The pint-size Kirobo talking robot, who only speaks Japanese, is already on board the orbiting lab, waiting for Wakata to be its conversation pal.