Astronaut's Video of Rocket Launch From Space Showed Only Start of Journey

Here's how to complete the trip.

The camera pans outward, revealing the stark boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and the darkness of space. As the globe slowly rotates, the city lights gleaming below tip out of view. With such smooth camera panning and grand orchestral music so epic, you might expect Iron Man to zoom forth, followed shortly by the Marvel logo.

But what emerges from the Earth is something real: Russia’s uncrewed Progress MS-10 cargo spacecraft, launched by a Soyuz rocket, headed for the International Space Station. ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst captured its magnificent launch on November 16 at 6:14 p.m. GMT, compressing a string of photos taken from the International Space Station to create a slick, one-minute clip of the endeavor.

cupola sahara shot
The Cupola module has long offered ISS residents stunning views of space and Earth -- like this one, of the Sahara Desert.

We’re used to seeing artistic renderings of launches that get circulated over and over. Thanks to Gerst (and a stunning view from the Cupola module of the ISS), we can see actual footage of the event, from flashy puff of the core stage separating to the brilliant, white & purple illumination of the stage burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, before the vehicle enters orbit.

The mission presented a fantastic photo opportunity as it delivered supplies to the ISS some 250 miles above Earth. But after those first 15 minutes captured by Gerst, how does a spacecraft deliver its precious cargo to to the ISS?

Soyuz MS-05 docked at ISS
The docked Soyuz MS-05 bringing astronauts Paul Nespoli, Randy Bresnik, and cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky to the International Space Station 2017.

Restocking the ISS

Astronauts can’t exactly take a spacewalk to pick up groceries. On this mission in November, 5,653 pounds of cargo and supplies were launched atop a Soyuz rocket. Included in the Progress spacecraft’s delivery were 1,653 pounds of propellant, 165 pounds of oxygen and air, and 970 pounds of water.

The ISS relies on a number of visiting vehicles the ISS relies on to deliver residents and rations. When it’s Soyuz’s turn, the Russian rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodome in Kazakhstan, with Progress in tow. Although Soyuz can technically launch at any time, scientists determined that the Kazakhstan-based route just after the ISS passes over takes the least time, taking only six hours in the best case scenario.

The spacecraft undergoes two transfers, the Hohmann transfer and a bi-elliptic transfer, to reach the correct height and speed to safely rendezvous with the ISS. During the Hohmann transfer, Soyuz burns its engine to migrate to an orbit roughly 62 miles below that of the ISS and match its speed. Once it catches up, the craft begins the bi-elliptic transfer, which involves three engine burns: one to match altitude of the ISS, one to reach the perfect speed, and one angled sideways as a precaution. The sideways burn slightly adjusts the orbit of the spacecraft, to prevent the Soyuz from going head-first into the ISS.

ISS orbit diagram
The Soyuz goes through two main transfers to match the cruising altitude of the ISS. Red indicates the first insertion orbit, yellow indicates the next step, in phasing orbit, and green indicates the final orbit of the ISS. 

When Soyuz reaches the approximate altitude to match the ISS, the rocket turns on an automated radar system called Kurs to search for the station. If anything goes wrong, the spacecraft’s passengers can pilot the vehicle manually. The approach requires optimal lighting, avoiding blinding sunlight, as well as areas with high temperature fluctuation close to the solar arrays for contact and capture with with the ISS.

If the craft misses its first opportunity, the mission isn’t moot — another opportunity to dock will open, but extends the whole procedure to two days total.

As photogenic as these launches to the ISS, they are quite common, but rarely are they captured the way Gerst did in November. Cool as it is to see SpaceX rockets safely touch down on Earth, witnessing a launch vehicle arrive in space is no less remarkable.