Russian rocket to double space station crew

KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian spacecraft blasted off on Wednesday on a mission that will double the permanent crew of the International Space Station (ISS) to six for the first time.

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Expedition 20 will also be the first when all five international partner space agencies -- NASA of the United States, Russia’s Roskosmos, Japan’s JAXA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) -- are represented on board the ISS.

Belgian Frank de Winne, Canadian Robert Thirsk and Russian Roman Romanenko lifted off from the Russian-owned Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as planned, an official at Mission Control outside Moscow said.

The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft reached its targeted orbit of about 200-242 km (120-150 miles) above the earth, the official announced to applause.

“Our only problem today was the weather in Baikonur. It’s a bit too hot,” head of space programs for the Russian segment of ISS, Vladimir Solovyov, told reporters.

“We are now facing pretty energetic work - two spacewalks, receiving a (U.S. Space) Shuttle, a cargo spaceship, then another Shuttle and Japanese cargo.”

De Winne will be the first European commander of the space outpost which is worth more than $100 billion.

The Soyuz TMA-15 spaceship is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Friday. The incoming crew will join Russian Gennady Padalka, U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt and Japan’s Koichi Wakata.

The expanded crew will test the latest, fully computerized Russian space suits in space and will also use new equipment, including a system that recycles urine into drinking water.

Solovyov said the work undertaken will include technical and scientific experiments as well as medical tests. The crew will also study the sun and the universe.

Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the ISS since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.

This year Russia will double the number of its space launches from Baikonur to four in light of the increase in the permanent ISS crew to six.

“They will have a wonderful crew on board now,” he said.

Space officials say that in the future as many as 13 people could be on the station at one time.

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Robert Woodward