A rocket carrying Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and American Steve Swanson to the space station blasted off yesterday from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz booster rocket lifted off as scheduled at 3am (local time) and entered a designated orbit ten minutes after the launch. It had been expected to reach the space station in six hours. All onboard systems appeared to be working flawlessly.
But experts at Nasa and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, revealed that shortly before docking the arrival at the space station had to be delayed.
It came after a 24-second engine burn that was necessary to adjust the Soyuz spacecraft’s orbiting path “did not occur as planned”.
Nasa officials said none of the crew members were in any danger but are now forced to wait until later today for the Soyuz TMA-12M to arrive and dock at the space station.
Roscosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko last night said the glitch was due to the failure of the ship’s orientation system.
He said the crew remained “in good spirits” and that they had taken off their space suits to prepare for the long flight.
The Russian official said the crew was working to adjust to the right orbit to ensure the correct trajectory for docking.
In the past, Russian spacecraft used to routinely travel two days to reach the orbiting laboratory before last year. This journey had been due to become only the fifth time a crew would have taken the six-hour “fast-track” route to the station – before the engine failure delayed this.
The Interfax news agency yesterday said Vitali Lopota, chief of Russia’s RKK Energia state-controlled rocket manufacturer, had revealed a failure of the spacecraft’s software was to blame.
The three astronauts travelling in the Soyuz will be greeted by Japan’s Koichi Wakata, Nasa’s Rick Mastracchio and Russia’s Mikhail Tyurin, who have been at the station since November.
Mr Wakata is the first Japanese astronaut to lead the station. The new crew is scheduled to stay in orbit for six months. Mr Swanson is a veteran of two US space shuttle missions, and Skvortsov spent six months at the space outpost in 2010. Mr Artemyev is on his first flight.
The joint mission between the US and Russia has not been hampered by the ongoing disagreements over the Ukraine.
Since the retirement of the US space shuttle fleet in 2011, Nasa has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the only means to ferry crew to the outpost.
The US is paying Russia nearly US $71 million (£42.8m ) per seat to fly astronauts to the space lab through 2017.
Washington has led calls to apply sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine following a hastily arranged referendum. So far the sanctions have been limited and have not directly targeted the wider Russian economy.
Earlier this month, Nasa administrator Charles Bolden repeatedly said the conflict in Ukraine would have no effect on what’s going on in space between the US and Russia, saying that the “partnership in space remains intact and normal”.
At the same time, Mr Bolden said that, while Nasa continues to co-operate successfully with Russia, it wants to quickly get its own capacity to launch crews.
The US space agency is trying to speed up private American companies’ efforts to launch crews into orbit, but it needs extra funding to do so.