Astronauts blast off on Christmas space voyage

Three astronauts from Japan, Russia and the United States blasted off Monday for a Christmas voyage to the International Space Station.

The Soyuz rocket blasted off on schedule from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in the barren Kazakh steppe at (9.52pm GMT on Sunday) carrying Soichi Noguchi of Japan, US astronaut Timothy Creamer and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov.

It entered orbit a few minutes after take-off, Interfax news agency quoted mission control as saying. “The team feels fine,” an official said.

The rocket is due to dock with the ISS at 10.54pm GMT on Wednesday.

The team was to replace Frank De Winne of Belgium, Robert Thirsk of Canada and Roman Romanenko of Russia, who returned to Earth on December 1 after spending six months on board the ISS whose capacity was doubled in May from three to six astronauts.

Although their mission is to continue the station’s high-tech work, the crew seemed most animated by Japanese crew member Soichi Noguchi’s promise of sushi and US astronaut Timothy Creamer’s plans to update his Twitter page from the ISS.

“Yes I plan to be twittering from space. I tried to mention that announcement a couple of days ago in twitter version,” Creamer told reporters during a press conference.

“I thought that if I could give you status of what I am doing—what we’re hoping for, what we’re looking forward to seeing—those would be good little teasers.”

Twitter, a service which allows users to send messages of up to 140 characters and provide links to the web, exploded from relative obscurity to become one of the most talked-about internet phenomena of 2009.

Creamer, who holds a masters degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a self-described “tech guy”, has twittered regularly during the run-up to the launch.

Equally tantalising was the promise by Noguchi, the first Japanese astronaut to launch to the ISS from Baikonur, to prepare fresh sushi for his crew mates during their long sojourn aboard the space station.

The ISS, which orbits 350km above Earth, is a sophisticated platform for scientific experiments, helping test the effects of long-term space travel on humans, a must for any trip to distant Mars.

A huge new solar array was installed earlier this year to provide more power which, together with a newly installed European laboratory and a hi-tech Japanese lab, Kibo, has significantly boosted the station’s capabilities.

The Soyuz is set to become the sole means of reaching the ISS for a few years as the United States is due to take its aging shuttles out of commission in 2010. - AFP



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