The Soviet-designed Soyuz manned spacecraft has been hauling crews into orbit for 47 years now. Design work on the vehicle began in 1959, which puts its total age at 55. However, thanks to continuous modernization efforts, the Soyuz is still going strong. The current iteration, the Soyuz TMA-M, was commissioned in 2010. An even more advanced model is in the pipeline, to be known as the Soyuz TMA-MS (or Soyuz MS). There will also be an upgraded resupply vehicle, the Progress MS.
The development of the previous manned version, the Soyuz TMA-M, was primarily aimed at upgrading the digital computer and the telemetry transmission system. Earlier Soyuz craft were fitted with an analog telemetry system. The new solution is more compact, and has an advanced TsVM-101-class computer. The modernization effort saw the replacement of the original 36 obsolete instruments with 19 newly designed ones, necessitating corresponding updates to the on-board complex control system and thermal control system. The new craft is easier to manufacture, and its total empty weight is 70 kg lower than that of the predecessor.
The Soyuz manufacturer, Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, first announced plans for the new modification in 2011. It was reported back then that the Soyuz TMA-MS would get more efficient solar panels with photovoltaic converters, and that the docking and attitude control thrusters would be rearranged for reliable rendezvousing with the International Space Station (ISS) even if one of the thrusters failed, and for safe re-entry in case any of two thrusters failed.
As distinct from the previous versions, the Soyuz and Progress MS modifications will have GLONASS/ GPS satellite navigation capability, an advanced control radio link with a satcom channel, and the Kurs NA automated docking system which is two times lighter than the previous one and consumes three times less power. In April 2014, the active electronically scanned array (AESA) of the Signal command and telemetry system was delivered to the ISS in the Progress M-23M vehicle. It was mounted outside the Zvezda service module this summer to be used in tests of the S-band radio channel both directly, via ground stations, and via Luch-5 relay satellites. The AESA-enabled Signal system will eventually be installed on all Progress and Soyuz craft in lieu of the current Kvant-V two-way radio communications system.
The upgrade effort is called to boost the functionality of the Soyuz’s equipment by ensuring command and control beyond the line of sight of the Russian ground control stations. It will provide the crew with uninterrupted updates on the trajectory parameters without relying on ground tracking equipment. The communications system will utilize Luch relay satellites for constant direct contact with ground control.
The modernization program makes the Soyuz more reliable and safe to operate, improves structural commonality, and replaces obsolete materials and components with new, advanced ones. One of the factors contributing to better reliability is the introduction of backup electrical actuators on the docking assembly and the interface sealing mechanism. The new Soyuz will have increased protection against space debris and micrometeoroids thanks to the installation of additional meteoroid shielding. It will also have a digital TV radio link. The upgraded craft’s equipment will be based entirely on Russian-made electronic components. The re-entry vehicle’s new communications and detection system will make it easier to find anywhere on Earth, including through the use of GLONASS sensors. Throughout the parachute-assisted descent and after the touchdown, the re-entry vehicle’s GLONASS/GPS coordinates will be fed to the Korolev, Moscow Region mission control center via the COSPAS-SARSAT channel.
Less conspicuous but equally important changes include an upgraded transitional hand controller, which took two years to design. The first Soyuz thus upgraded will be launched by year-end. In fact, everything on board that comes in contact with the pilot’s hands will undergo gradual improvements. The outwardly minor upgrades necessitated numerous changes to the design specifications and production processes. All this is to make the pilot more comfortable operating the spacecraft and to eliminate the possibility of erroneous actions.
The unmanned Progress MS resupply vehicle will get a new LED spotlight. The orbit radio tracking modules of the trajectory control and navigation system will be replaced by advanced satnav equipment.
Work is under way to prepare both vehicles for flight tests. Last year saw the development of design documentation for the installation of instruments and equipment on the first Soyuz-MS to go into space; work continued to draft schematics for an integrated test stand for onboard systems. Energia has begun manufacturing parts of the spacecraft’s body, and has built a universal transport container for taking Soyuz and Progress vehicles from the manufacturing site to the cosmodrome using all modes of transportation. Also last year, Energia began prototyping and ground-testing the Progress MS. Vitaly Lopota, then president of the company, said that production of the Soyuz-MS (six craft in various phases of completion) and the Progress-MS (nine craft in various phases of completion) would commence in 2013-14.
According to our information, the first Progress MS (No 431) is to be launched on October 26, 2015. Soyuz MS tests will begin next year, according to Valery Korzun, deputy head of the Russian cosmonaut training center: “We are expecting to begin training with the Soyuz MS modification next year.” The first such craft, the Soyuz MS-01, is currently expected to be launched on March 30, 2016, carrying the ISS-47/48 expedition crew (Alexey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka and Geoffrey Williams). “After that we will begin training with the MultiPurpose Laboratory Module [also known as Nauka, a planned addition to the ISS], we already know the dates. Training on a scientific and power-producing module is also in our plans,” Korzun adds.
From the very start, a “baby steps” strategy was selected for the Soyuz modernization program. The overall appearance of the craft remains unchanged. The greatest engineering efforts have gone into modernizing individual assemblies and systems. As a result, Russia now has a fairly modern and reliable manned spacecraft. This is why, despite the on-going work to develop the Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS), Soyuz vehicles will keep going to space for years to come.