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Russian cargo ship completes novel 28-hour docking port move at space station

The uncrewed Russian cargo ship Progress 78 approaches the International Space Station on July 1, 2021 in this image taken by an astronaut on the station ahead of docking operations.
The uncrewed Russian cargo ship Progress 78 approaches the International Space Station on July 1, 2021 in this image taken by an astronaut on the station ahead of docking operations. (Image credit: NASA)

An uncrewed Russian cargo ship completed a day-long parking spot swap at the International Space Station early Friday (Oct. 22) to move to a new berth on the orbiting lab's newest laboratory module.

The Progress 78 spacecraft docked at the station's Earth-facing port on its new Russian-built Nauka module at 12:21 a.m. EDT (0421 GMT). The move came just over a day the supply ship cast off from its previous parking spot on Russia's Poisk module at the station on Wednesday (Oct. 20).

After it undocked Wednesday, the Progress spacecraft  parked itself in a "station-keeping" mode (that's NASA-speak for hold its position) at a point about 120 miles (193 km) from the space station until for more than a day — 28 hours, 41 minutes to be exact — before redocking at the stations' new Russian-built Nauka laboratory module Friday.

"The relocation positions Progress 78 to conduct leak checks of the Nauka module’s propellent lines before they are used with the new module’s thrusters for orientation control of the station," NASA officials said in a Friday update.

Related: How Russia's Progress cargo ships work (infographic)

It's unusual for a spacecraft to hold position for so long near the space station, but NASA said the waiting time would assist with the redocking procedure.

"The 24 hours for undocking/redocking is to allow Russian flight controllers to configure the systems on Nauka to receive the Progress," NASA spokesperson Leah Cheshier told Space.com via email before the move. "The vehicle backs away to a safe distance from the station while that work is going on."

In late July, the Nauka module accidentally tilted the space station by about 540 degrees shortly after its own docking due to a software glitch. NASA has said the crew was in no danger at the time. (Yet another Russian spacecraft, a Soyuz MS-18 crew capsule that returned a film crew to Earth last week, briefly knocked the ISS off-orientation on Oct. 15. NASA and Roscosmos are looking into the root cause.)

The Progress 78 spacecraft performed the docking without the help of the station's current Expedition 66 crew, but Russian cosmonauts are standing by just in case they need to assist with the redocking, NASA said in a blog post about station operations.

"The station's two cosmonauts, Flight Engineers Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov, are getting ready," the blog post stated. "The duo practiced on the Zvezda service module's tele-robotically operated rendezvous unit for the unlikely event they would have to manually redock the 78P."

Progress 78 launched to the space station in late June and and arrived at the orbiting lab on July 1, when it docked at the Poisk module after a two-day trip. Its port switch comes just a week before another Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress 79, will depart Earth for the space station. The launch is scheduled to depart the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for no earlier than 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Oct. 27 (0000 GMT or 5 a.m. local time Thursday, Oct. 28.) NASA will start its coverage about 15 minutes before launch.

Progress 79 will haul three tons of food, fuel and supplies to the space station for an expected docking at the aft port of the Zvezda service module at 9:34 p.m. EDT Friday, Oct. 29 (0134 GMT Saturday, Oct. 30). NASA plans its live coverage at 8:45 p.m. EDT Friday (0045 GMT Saturday).

Editor's note: This article was originally published Oct. 20 and updated Oct. 21.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.