Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW: Russia has successfully launched a spacecraft on a milestone mission that will boost the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) from three to six.

The Soyuz TM-15 craft carrying Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, blasted off from the Baikonur Space Centre in Kazakhstan at 16:05 IST on Wednesday. It is scheduled to dock on Friday with the ISS, about 352 km above Earth.

On board the ISS, the astronauts will join Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who will take command of the six-crew Expedition 20, NASA physician-astronaut Michael Barratt and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.

It is for the first time that the 10-year-old ISS will be hosting a permanent crew of six that will work together for six months.

In another first, the ISS crew will bring together all five partners in the project — Russia, the U.S., Japan, Canada and the ESA. The expanded crew will be able to dramatically expand their research programme, with 100 new experiments planned for their 180-day mission.