Three new crew members are set to arrive at the International Space Station to begin a six-month tour of orbital duty.
American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka launched Thursday aboard the Russian TMA-01M spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They are due to dock at the station today (Oct. 9) at 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT Sunday).
The three men are flying on a new model of Soyuz spacecraft that has been enhanced with new navigation systems and other avionics.
They launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan two days earlier and received an unexpected sendoff from deported Russian spy Anna Chapman, who made an appearance at their farewell ceremony with friends and family. Chapman was one of 10 Russian spies deported from the United States in July.
The station's incoming crew will join three spaceflyers already living aboard the orbiting lab. They include American astronauts Doug Wheelock — the station's current commander — and Shannon Walker, both of NASA, and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia to complete the Expedition 25 mission crew. In November Kelly will take over command of the station's Expedition 26 mission, when Wheelock, Walker and Yurchikhin fly home.
Kelly and Kaleri, both veteran spaceflyers, are making return trips to the space station. This flight is Skripochka's first trip to space.
"It will be very interesting for me to see the next stage of the station," Kaleri told SPACE.com in a preflight interview. He is making his fifth spaceflight and is Russia's second most-experienced cosmonaut. "Finally we have built it and now we have to learn how to utilize this laboratory. It will be a challenging task."
The astronauts plan a full regimen of physics, chemistry and biomedical research to take advantage of the weightless lab.
"We have about 40 experiments that are scheduled to be conducted onboard," Skripochka said before launch. "We'll have our hands full."
The crew will be aboard the space station during the 10th anniversary of the first crew ever sent to the orbiting laboratory. That first crew, the three-man Expedition 1, launched on Oct. 31, 2000 and arrived on Nov. 2 of that year.
In 2000, the space station only consisted of two Russian modules and a U.S. connecting node. Today, $100 billion space station has more than 10 rooms, as much living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and a main truss as long as a football field. It is the product of five difference space agencies and 15 different countries.
The station's Expedition 25 crew plans to host two visiting space shuttle flights — the shuttle Discovery in November and Endeavour in February next year — plus the arrival of European and Japanese unmanned freighter ships.
That second shuttle mission — the STS-134 flight — will be commanded by Kelly's twin brother Mark Kelly. Both twins became NASA astronauts in 1996. This is the first time they are scheduled to meet up in space.
"It's a privilege to fly in space and it's also really a privilege to share this with someone you've known your whole life," Scott Kelly said in a preflight interview. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun for the two of us."
The shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission is the last shuttle flight currently set on NASA's books, though one more shuttle trip may be added to the lineup if President Obama signs the NASA authorization bill recently passed by Congress.
NASA will broadcast the Soyuz spacecraft docking live on NASA TV, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for space station mission updates and a link to NASA TV.