A Russian cargo ship launched toward the International Space Station (ISS) Wednesday laden with food, water and holiday cheer for the two astronauts living aboard the orbital laboratory.
The unmanned Progress 20 supply ship successfully rode a Russian-built Soyuz rocket spaceward at about 1:38 p.m. EST (1838 GMT) in a flight staged from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Progress 20 is slated to arrive at the space station on Dec. 23.
"For us, Santa's sleigh is arriving the day before Christmas Eve," NASA astronaut Bill McArthur, the station's Expedition 12 commander, told reporters this week. "We'll begin to unpack our new cargo ship on Christmas."
McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, representing the Federal Space Agency as Expedition 12 flight engineer, are in the second month of their six-month trip to the ISS, and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Progress 20.
About 5,680 pounds (2,576 kilograms) of cargo is tucked aboard the Progress 20 supply ship. That includes about 463 pounds (210 kilograms) of water, 183 pounds (83 kilograms) of oxygen and air, and 1,940 pounds (879 kilograms) pounds of propellant for the station.
Most of the cargo - about 3,100 pounds (1,406 kilograms) - is in the form of dry supplies, such as experiment hardware, spare parts and other useful equipment.
The vehicle is also ferrying some holiday treats, such as Christmas gifts, personal messages and other goodies for McArthur and Tokarev, NASA officials said.
Progress 20 was originally slated to replace a previous cargo ship, Progress 19, at the aft end of the space station's Russian-built Zvezda service module, which the Expedition 12 crew was set to discard on Dec. 20.
Russian flight controllers, however, opted to keep Progress 19 at its berth until March 2006 to allow McArthur and Tokarev additional time to cram more trash and unneeded items into the expendable vehicle. Progress 19 is expected to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere during reentry.
Meanwhile, Progress 20 will dock at the station's Pirs docking compartment, which is typically reserved for crew-carrying Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA officials told SPACE.com that Progress vehicles have used the Pirs docking port in the past, such as the Progress 11 cargo tug during Expedition 7.
McArthur and Tokarev are scheduled to return to Earth in early April 2006 after welcoming their relief crew, Expedition 13's Jeffrey Williams and Pavel Vinogradov in March, Russian space officials have said.
Marcos Pontes, Brazil's first astronaut, is also slated to launch toward the ISS with the Expedition 13 crew.
Progress 20 is currently scheduled to dock at the ISS at 2:55 p.m. EST (1955 GMT) on Dec. 23.
NASA TV will broadcast the cargo ship's ISS arrival beginning at 2:00 p.m. EST (1900 GMT).
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 12