Image: Soyuz launch
Dmitry Lovetsky  /  AP
In this long-exposure photo, taken with a fisheye lens, people watch Wednesday's launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz sent a U.S.-Russian crew toward a rendezvous with the International Space Station.
updated 12/21/2011 10:36:05 AM ET 2011-12-21T15:36:05

Three spacefliers blasted off Wednesday from snowy Kazakhstan to spend the holidays on the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, part of the European Space Agency, lifted off atop the Russian Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 8:16 a.m. ET.

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The trio is bound for the space station, where they are scheduled to dock on Friday at 10:22 a.m. ET. They are set to begin a roughly five-month stay on the orbiting outpost as part of the station's Expedition 30 mission, and will return in May 2012.

Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers will join the three spacefliers already on the station: commander Daniel Burbank of NASA and flight engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin of Russia. Their arrival will beef up the station's crew complement to its full six members.

Holiday celebrations
The new arrivals will find the space laboratory festive for the holidays. The current crew has put up holiday decorations to mark the season, and Burbank sent a holiday greeting video down to the people of Earth. [Space Station Commander Sends Holiday Greetings to Earth]

"We'll celebrate the holidays in great fashion after they get here," Burbank said of the new crew members. "We've already put up decorations, and we've gathered together all the cards and gifts that our friends and families have sent to us, and we're planning a couple of big meals. That'll be great."

Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers, all veteran spacefliers who've been to the space station before, will also have their work cut out for them once they arrive at their new home away from home. In addition to wide-ranging scientific research projects, the crew members will spend their time keeping up the station and fixing anything that might break.

"If liquid's squirting out someplace, then it's like I'm a plumber for the day; if an electronics box isn't working right then you're an electrical repairman for the day," Pettit said during a press conference a few months before the launch. "You have to remember that the space station is so complicated, no one person could keep all the details in your mind. That's why we need all the folks on the ground."

The presence of six crew members onboard the station will allow each spaceflier to dig deep into research.

"I think I have something like 57 experiments from NASA, from ESA and also from [the Japanese space agency] JAXA," Kuipers said in a press conference earlier this year. "There's a whole bunch of experiments that I'm looking forward to, experiments in different fields — fluid physiology, fluid physics."

Image: Soyuz launch
Kirill Kudryavtsev  /  AFP - Getty Images
Russia's Soyuz rocket lifts off from its Baikonur launch pad on Wednesday.

Milestone event
The Expedition 30 team is also scheduled to be in space for a milestone event.

On Feb. 7, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station is set to launch. The SpaceX Dragon capsule will be making its first cargo delivery run as part of a NASA program to encourage the development of private spacecraft to help fill the gap left by the retirement of the space shuttles this summer.

The unmanned Dragon is due to launch on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, and make an autonomous rendezvous with the space station. Once within reach, the crew inside the station will grab onto the freighter will the station's robotic arm and berth it on the lab.

"We've been practicing the dynamics of how you do that and we practice that a lot," Pettit said. "Once you get these docked to station, it's pretty much standard operations."

After about three months in space, the Expedition 30 mission will change over to Expedition 31, and Kononenko will take over command of the station. There will be many differences for him between this trip and his previous sojourn to the orbiting lab in 2008, including a potential for two spacewalks (or extravehicular activities, also known as EVAs) in 2012.

"A lot of things changed for me," Kononenko told in a prelaunch interview. "First I'm going to fly to the station as a Soyuz commander and later become comrade of the International Space Station — that's a really big transition for me. The station itself became more interesting over these couple years, new modules appeared, new systems were installed. Of course the EVA I'm going to perform has new tasks and new objectives, and I'm looking forward to them."

Tough year
The launch came at the end of a tough year for Russia's space agency.

This flight was delayed by about a month in the wake of a failed Russian cargo ship launch in August, which involved a similar Soyuz rocket. Russian spacecraft were grounded while officials investigated the problem, which was eventually traced back to a malfunctioning gas generator in the Soyuz’s third stage engine.

At the end of October, Russia successfully launched another cargo vehicle, and on Nov. 14, Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin launched safely to the station atop a Soyuz rocket.

Russia also suffered the loss of its unmanned Phobos-Grunt probe, which lifted off Nov. 8 to collect samples from Mars' moon Phobos. The vehicle failed to fire its thrusters toward Mars, and has been stranded and largely unresponsive in Earth orbit ever since. Experts expect it to fall back to Earth as a piece of space debris in January.

Phobos-Grunt was the 19th spacecraft Russia has launched toward Mars since 1960. None of them has been fully successful. 

You can follow assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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