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Soyuz spacecraft
An upgraded Soyuz spacecraft nears the International Space Station for docking. (Credit: NASA)

The first craft in Russia’s upgraded fleet of Soyuz spaceships reached the International Space Station overnight, delivering a trio of U.S., Russian and Japanese spacefliers for their four-month tour of duty.

NASA’s Kate Rubins, Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Japan’s Takuya Onishi lifted off two days earlier from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Soyuz trips to the station typically take only six hours, but Russian mission planners passed up the express route this time to give the crew more time to check out the systems on the upgraded Soyuz MS model.

Compared with past models of the Soyuz, going back almost 50 years, the MS boasts more efficient solar panels; a lighter, faster computer system; more shielding against space debris; and improvements in the docking and navigational systems.

The systems checked out just fine during orbital tests, and the docking proceeded smoothly over the South Pacific at 9:06 p.m. PT Friday. “A textbook arrival for the brand-new Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft,” NASA commentator Rob Navias said.

A couple of hours later, the three crew members opened the hatch and floated into the station for a meet-up with the three spacefliers already aboard the orbital outpost: NASA’s Jeff Williams (the station’s current commander) and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin.

After the greetings and hugs, the crew gathered for a video link-up with space officials and family members, who were standing by at Russia’s mission control center. Rubins’ husband, Michael Magnani, told his wife “you seem to be a pro already, floating out of the hatch.”

“Not as good as these guys,” said Rubins, pointing a thumb to her crewmates. “Yeah, we had a great flight. It was fantastic.”

The crew is now at full strength to keep the 17-year-old station running, and they’ll contribute to more than 250 scientific experiments being conducted in orbit.

Rubins, a biologist, is expected to become the first person to sequence DNA in space during her stint on the station. The thumb-drive-sized sequencing device, known as MiniON, is scheduled to be sent into orbit as soon as July 18 as part of a SpaceX Dragon cargo shipment.

To keep track of the crew as well as NASA’s past and future spacefliers, follow @NASA_Astronauts on Twitter.

An earlier version of this report erroneously said the “express” trip to the space station took two hours rather than the typical six. Two hours would be the super-express route.

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