After two days of chasing its orbital quarry, a Russian supply ship successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) today on a mission to deliver fresh food, clothes and other supplies to the two astronauts aboard.
The unmanned cargo ship, dubbed Progress 17, docked smoothly with the space station's Zvezda service module at 3:10 p.m. EST (2010 GMT) - a full five minutes earlier than expected - as the two spacecraft passed over the equator just off the western coast of Africa, NASA officials said.
"Congratulations," Russian flight controllers told the space station crew as Progress 17 docked in its Zvezda berth at the aft end of the module.
Just minutes after Progress 17's arrival, the current space station crew - ISS Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao and flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov - verified that docking latches had grappled the supply ship.
Chiao and Sharipov are expected to complete seal checks between Progress 17 and the ISS around 5:30 p.m. EST (2230 GMT) and open the new supply ship for the first time an hour later. They are currently scheduled to begin what will be a multiple-day unpacking job to empty Progress 17 on Thursday.
Water, air and other supplies
Among the 2.3 tons of supplies aboard Progress 17 are 242 pounds (109 kilograms) of oxygen and air, and 1,071 pounds (485 kilograms) of water. The spacecraft also contains about 86 pounds (39 kilograms) of propellant used to keep the space station in the proper orbit.
While the amount of consumables currently aboard the ISS are nowhere near the low levels seen when the last supply ship - Progress 16 - docked at the station last year, NASA officials said Progress 17's payload also includes additional supplies of air and food.
Included in the fresh delivery ship are 42 oxygen-generating candles that can be used to boost the station's air supply and 86 containers packed with 160 days worth of food to add to the current ISS pantry stores.
When Progress 16 docked at the ISS on Dec. 25, 2004, food supplies were so low aboard the station that Chiao and Sharipov had altered their diets and were prepared to leave the orbital laboratory empty if the cargo ship failed to reach the station.
Elektron spare parts and tools
Tucked inside Progress 17 are much needed spare parts for the ISS, included new components for a Russian-built device that serves as the space station's prime oxygen generator.
The device, known as the Elektron, separates water into its component oxygen and hydrogen through the process of electrolysis.
Over the last few months the unit's status has flip-flopped between operational and non-functional, most recently earlier today when the Elektron stopped working outright. Some troubleshooting efforts by Sharipov restored the unit, which has been drawing more power than normal as part of an earlier fix.
Progress 17 also contains a heat exchanger unit for the station's U.S. airlock that should allow the area to be used to staged future spacewalks, as well as new cameras and lenses that will be used the Expedition 10 crew's successors - Expedition 11's Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips - to photograph the Discovery orbiter's thermal protection tiles during NASA's first shuttle launch since the 2003 loss of Columbia.
Discovery is currently slated to launch in mid-May.
Using a Soyuz rocket, the Progress 17 spacecraft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Feb. 28 at about 2:09 p.m. EST (1909 GMT) and reached orbit about 10 minutes later.
The cargo ship is the last delivery scheduled for Expedition 10 before Chiao and Sharipov return to Earth in late April. The two men arrived at the space station in October 2004 and have completed one of two planned spacewalks during their mission.
Their final spacewalk, aimed at completing enhancements to the ISS to ready it for a new European cargo ship, is currently planned for late March.
Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 10