Russia launches huge Nauka science module to space station after years of delays

Russia's largest space laboratory yet launched into orbit Wednesday (July 21) on a mission to expand the International Space Station after 14 years of delays. 

The Russian Multipurpose Research Module (MLM), also known as Nauka, blasted off toward the International Space Station at 10:58 EDT (14:58 UTC)  atop a Proton-M rocket from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch was a longtime coming for Nauka, which was originally slated to launch in 2007.

“Engine start and lift-off. A module named Science takes flight to the International Space Station!” NASA commentator Rob Navias said just as the rocket lifted off the launch pad, sending the 22-ton (20-tonne) Nauka module toward the space station.

Related: The International Space Station: Inside and Out (Infographic)

The Proton-M rocket with the Russian Nauka module aboard blasting off Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

The module, carrying the European Robotic Arm (ERA), a new robotic appendage designed to service the Russian segment of the space station, successfully separated from the launcher 580 seconds after liftoff.

"T+9:40 min after the liftoff, the Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module separated nominally from the Proton-M carrier rocket 3rd stage!” Russia's Space Agency Roscosmos confirmed the successful separation in a tweet that was later taken offline. "It is now beginning its 8-day autonomous flight to the ISS."

Three minutes later, Roscosmos confirmed Nauka successfully deployed its solar panels and antennas. The module will now use its own engines to raise its orbit, the Russian news agency TASS reported.

The Nauka module before its encapsulation into a rocket fairing. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Nauka, which is expected to dock at the orbital outpost on July 29, will become the largest Russian component of the station. Over 42 feet (13 meters) long and with a maximum diameter of 14 feet (4.3 meters), the module will house research facilities but also provide a spare bed for a cosmonaut, as well as a toilet, oxygen regeneration system and gear for recycling water from urine. 

Before Nauka reaches the space station, cosmonauts will have to remove the Pirs docking module on the station's Russian-built Zvezda service module to allow Nauka to take its place. That undocking is scheduled for 9:17 a.m. EDT (1317 GMT) on Friday (July 23) and you'll be able to watch that live courtesy of NASA TV.

Cosmonauts started preparing for the departure of Pirs last month during a series of spacewalks. Pirs is departing the space station after nearly 20 years serving as a docking port and airlock for the orbiting laboratory. It will partially burn in the atmosphere but pieces from it will land in the Pacific Ocean approximately four hours after its departure from the space station, according to TASS.

Nauka, conceived in the early 1990s, experienced many obstacles on its way to space. Originally designed as a back-up for the station's first module, Zarya, which launched in 1998, Nauka spent over two decades waiting on the ground, getting outdated. 

In 2013, the Khrunichev Space Center, which built Nauka, had to remove metal chips found in the module’s fuel system, TASS reported. At some point, Roscosmos contemplated replacing the research module’s ageing propellant tanks with those from the Fregat booster. However, later it was decided to send the module to the space station with its original tanks. 

Nauka also features an active docking port and an airlock, which will be serviced by the 36-foot-long (11m) European Robotic Arm, the first robotic operator designed specifically to work on the Russian segment of the space station. 

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.