A Russian rocket launched into space Tuesday carrying a brand-new docking port for the International Space Station.
The Soyuz rocket blasted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with the unmanned Mini-Research Module 2, a new multipurpose room for the space station that can serve as a docking port, storage closet or an airlock for Russian spacewalks.
"It's very important right now," Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suarev, who currently lives on the space station, said before he left Earth. "This is additional space to store equipment and other things that are on board the station, but the primary objective is for us to use the module for extravehicular activity."
The module, called Poisk (Russian for "Explore"), launched from the Central Asian spaceport late Tuesday local time (9:22 a.m. ET). It is due to dock at the space station Thursday at about 10:43 a.m. ET.
Poisk is Russia's first new addition to the station since 2001, when the country's Federal Space Agency launched the Pirs docking compartment — a room similar to Poisk that is attached to the outpost's bottom, Earth-facing side.
The module is just over 13 feet (4 meters) long, about 8 feet (2.5 meters) wide and weighs about 8,000 pounds (17,636 kilograms). It is shaped like a rounded-off barrel and has about 380 cubic feet (10.7 cubic meters) of actual living space inside. The station room launched with about 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of cargo, about 1,764 pounds (800 kilograms) of which is made up of Russian Orlan spacesuits and life support gear.
Space station managers and astronauts have said Poisk is vital because it will add a fourth docking port for visiting Russian spacecraft like Soyuz crew vehicles and unmanned Progress cargo ships. The module is due to dock autonomously to a point on top of the space station.
The station currently has three berths on its Russian segment — two on the bottom and one at the aft. Today, all of them are taken by two Soyuz spacecraft (lifeboats for the station's six-person crew) and an unmanned cargo ship.
"With six crew members on board, you have to permanently have two Soyuz docked," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy station program manager. That means a third docking port is be required during crew changes, and yet another for the cargo ship, he added.
So the fourth docking port will add some flexibility for cargo and crew scheduling since it will ease traffic and spacecraft parking concerns at the station, Shireman told Space.com. The station also has an American-built docking port at the front for visiting space shuttles.
NASA officials did not have information from Russia's Federal Space Agency on the estimated cost for Poisk, Shireman said.
The $100 billion space station has been under construction since 1998 and is home to six people: two Russians, two Americans and one astronaut each from Canada and Belgium. It is the product of cooperation among 16 different countries.
The rocket carrying Poisk launched just six days ahead of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis, which is slated to lift off Monday from Florida to deliver a giant load of spare parts to the space station. A Soyuz spacecraft is also expected to depart the station in a few weeks to return three astronauts back to Earth.
"It's a very busy time," Shireman said.