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Russian cargo ship on its way to space station

Image: Progress launch
A Russian Soyuz-U booster lofts an unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft into orbit from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday. The ship is bringing water and fuel to the International Space Station.Str / AFP - Getty Images
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A new robotic Russian space freighter is hauling tons of food and equipment for the crew of the International Space Station.

The unmanned cargo ship Progress 46 soared spaceward atop a Soyuz rocket from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Liftoff occurred early Thursday local time (6:06 p.m. ET Wednesday), marking Russia's first space mission of the year.

"Progress 46 successfully delivered to orbit … it is en route to the International Space Station," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during launch commentary. Navias said it was a "flawless" launch by Russia's Federal Space Agency.

The Progress 46 spacecraft is due to arrive at the space station late Friday ET to deliver about 2.9 tons of cargo to the outpost's six-man crew. The space station is currently home to three Russians, two Americans and a Dutch astronaut.

Progress 46, or vehicle M-14M as it is known in Russia, is the first of several spacecraft to visit the International Space Station this year. It is packed with 2,050 pounds (930 kilograms) of fuel, 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of oxygen and air, 926 pounds (420 kilograms) of water and 2,778 pounds (1,260 kilograms) of spare parts and experiment gear, NASA officials have said.

Russia's Progress 24-foot (7.3-meter) spaceships are disposable vehicles that resemble the three-module design of the country's crewed Soyuz space capsules. But Progress vehicles replace the central crew capsule of the Soyuz with a propellant storage module. At the end of their missions, Progress spacecraft are commanded to destroy themselves by burning up in Earth's atmosphere. [Infographic: How Russia's Progress Spaceships Work]

The launch of Progress 46 comes just two days after the departure of an older cargo ship, Progress 45, from the space station. The Progress 45 spacecraft undocked from the orbiting lab on Monday and was disposed of in Earth's atmosphere a day later.

Before Progress 45 burned up on Tuesday it deployed a novel miniature satellite called Chibis-M. The 88-pound (40-kilogram) microsatellite was released in an orbit that is slight higher than that of the International Space Station. It is expected to spend several years studying how plasma waves interact with Earth's ionosphere, NASA officials said.

The next big departure at the International Space Station will come on March 16, when the outpost's current commander — NASA astronaut Daniel Burbank — and two crewmates are due to return to Earth. They will be replaced by a fresh three-person team slated to launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on March 30.

With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft are the only vehicles currently capable of ferrying astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. In addition to Russia's Progress vehicles, robotic cargo ships built by the space agencies of Japan and Europe also help keep the space station supplied.

NASA currently plans to rely on private U.S.-built cargo ships to resupply the space station. The first of those commercial space freighters are slated to launch in late March. The U.S. space agency is also relying on new privately built spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting lab.

You can follow Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.