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New Crew to Rendezvous with Space Station Today

The Soyuz TMA-20 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 15, 2010 carrying Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi)

Three spaceflyers aboard a RussianSoyuz spacecraft are dueto arrive at the International Space Station later today (Dec. 17) tojoin thecrew.

The Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft carryingNASA astronautCatherine Coleman, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and EuropeanastronautPaolo Nespoli is scheduled to dock at the space station at 3:12 p.m.EST (2012GMT). [Graphic:Inside and Out: The International Space Station]

The trio launched from the BaikonurCosmodrome in Kazakhstanon Wednesday (Dec. 15), before spending two days chasing down thestation andentering its orbit.

Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli willjoin the space station'sexisting Expedition 26 crew ? stationcommander Scott Kelly of NASA and flight engineers AlexanderKaleri andOleg Skripochka of Russia, who have been living at the station sinceearlyOctober.

The incoming crew is poised to begina five-month stay inspace, during which Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will conducta variety of research experiments and educational outreach.They will alsooversee the arrival of two unmanned cargo supply vessels ? the EuropeanAutomated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle(HTV).

Additionally, the station crew willplay host to twoupcoming space shuttle visits in the new year. The STS-133flight of the shuttleDiscovery is targeted to launch in February 2011, and the subsequentSTS-134flight of Endeavour is pegged for April.

Both flights will be the lastmissions for the respective orbitersbefore NASA retires its space shuttle fleet next year. After theshuttleprogram's retirement, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be the onlylink forhumans to fly to space until an American commercial vehicle isavailable.

During their months-long stay onboardthe station, Coleman and Nespoli will perform duties asflight engineers. Kondratyevwill begin his mission as a flight engineer as well, but will take overas thespace station commander for Expedition 27.

The six-person Expedition 26 crewwill spend about threemonths together before Kelly hands over command of the station toKondratyev.Kelly, Kaleri and Skripochka are set to return to Earth in mid-March,whileColeman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will remain on the station until May.

You can follow SPACE.comStaff Writer Denise Chow onTwitter @denisechow.

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Denise Chow
Denise was an intern at the New York Daily News and GQ magazine. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto.