A Russian Soyuz rocket launched Friday carrying the new space laboratory module, a welcome boost for a NASA program facing major budget cuts.
Friday’s launch, which occurred from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, marked the second of six Soyuz flights to fill the International Space Station. The new module, dubbed the Unity, is designed to be launched every other year on the vehicles with which it will remain attached to the orbiting lab.
When it is launched, Unity will carry two crew members: NASA astronauts Jack Fischer and Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Roscosmos commander Oleg Artemyev.
The capsule is designed to transport up to six crew members — two men and four women — but has potential to hold more people, depending on the needs of the mission.
The first mission to the module will be in 2021, when Roscosmos’ Russian crew members will join the Expedition 51 mission led by Soyuz Commander Anatoly Ivanishin.
Current and future crew members to the ISS will not need to sign up for the mission every two years, allowing the craft to take advantage of more frequent launches of new crew members.
The mission, which was originally planned for December 2018, was postponed due to technical delays in the Soyuz rocket, but was actually launched months earlier than expected, due to technical issues during its last flight to the ISS.
Since its first launch in 1998, the ISS has regularly filled up with six astronauts and cosmonauts, whether conducting extensive research studies of the Earth, picking fruit for experiments or working on spacecraft.
The outgoing ISS will end its partnership with the Russian program in 2024, allowing a partnership with a smaller American commercial program led by Boeing to begin to fill its gaps.