A new Russian room that doubles as a docking port for the International Space Station is ready for a planned Tuesday launch toward the orbiting laboratory.
The new Mini-Research Module 2, called Poisk (Russian for "Explore"), is due to blast off atop a Soyuz rocket at 9:22 a.m. ET Tuesday from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Shaped like a large rounded-off barrel, the unmanned Poisk module is Russia's newest addition to the International Space Station and comes with a vital feature: an extra docking port for visiting Soyuz crew vehicles and automated cargo ships. It is due to arrive at the station Thursday and boost the number of Russian docking ports to four.
"We've been working on getting up to four Russian docking ports for years now," Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy station program manager, told Space.com. "This module coming up is going to bring that to fruition."
Space parking spots
The station's three current Russian docking ports — two on the bottom, and one aft — accommodate two Soyuz ships and a visiting cargo freighter. NASA space shuttles dock to an American-built berth at the front of the orbiting laboratory.
Because the station has a full six-person crew, it needs two Soyuz craft — which carry three people each — docked at all times to ferry astronauts back home and serve as lifeboats in an emergency. Together with a linked cargo ship, they fill up all three of the available Russian berths, causing some traffic concerns for new crews and supply ships.
Shireman said Poisk will give the station more flexibility for handling space traffic because of its extra spaceship parking spot.
The Poisk module is just over 13 feet long, about 8 feet wide and weighs about 8,000 pounds. It has about 380 cubic feet of actual living space inside and is launching with about 2,204 pounds of cargo, about 1,764 pounds of which is made up of Russian Orlan spacesuits and life support gear.
NASA officials did not have information from Russia's Federal Space Agency on the estimated cost for Poisk, Shireman said.
New Russian room
The Poisk module is the first Russian addition to the space station since the 2001 arrival of the Pirs docking compartment on the bottom, Earth-facing part of the station — and it shares much in common with that earlier module. The station's Russian segment is currently made up of two large modules (called Zvezda and Zarya) and Pirs.
Like Pirs, Poisk comes equipped with a cargo boom and external hatch to be used on Russian spacewalks. It has room for new space experiments to be attached to its outer hull.
"The reason why the name of this new module is Mini Research Module is due to the fact that this new addition to the station will house a number of scientific experiments that will be performed under the Russian space agency science program," said Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, who is living aboard the station today.
The new room will also launch unmanned, fly to the space station and dock autonomously like Pirs. Romanenko and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suarev inside the station will stand at the ready to take remote control of the spacecraft should it veer off-course.
But Poisk will be the first docking port to be located on top of the space station. Station astronauts performed two spacewalks earlier this year to prepare the rooftop berth on the station's Zvezda module for the new docking port.
The Poisk module is actually one of two Mini-Research Modules built for the space station by Russia. Its sister craft, Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM1), will launch aboard a NASA space shuttle next year and be delivered using robotic arms.
Shireman said Russia also plans to launch at least one new, larger laboratory module to the space station in coming years, but will make a formal decision on whether to proceed once the outpost's mission duration (currently slated to end around 2016) is pinned down more firmly.
Poisk is launching first because it was ready to fly earlier that MRM1, NASA officials have said. The International Space Station has been under construction since 1998 and is the product of cooperation among more than 16 countries.