Yesterday, the Russian Nauka module, formally called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), was launched atop a Proton-M rocket from the Kazakh cosmodrome of Baikonur. After about nine minutes it successfully separated from the rocket’s last stage and set off on its course. Its journey will take about 8 days to reach the International Space Station on July 29, where it will become part of the Russian section many years behind schedule. The launch included the European Robotic Arm (ERA) developed under the auspices of ESA, a robotic arm that will be used for operations in the area of the Station’s Russian section.
The history of MLM is very complex as it’s a module that was originally supposed to be launched into orbit in 2007. Major changes in the project, the budget problems of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and other problems of various kinds caused a series of delays that would require a book to be fully told.
After so many years, the MLM has finally been launched and, if everything goes well, it will be connected to the Zvezda module on July 29. It will replace the Pirs module, which will be dropped from the International Space Station on July 23 and will be transported by the Russian Progress MS-16 space freighter to Earth’s atmosphere, where both will disintegrate.
The International Space Station is equipped with some robotic arms which are used for a variety of operations but have many limitations of use in the Russian section. While Russian spacecraft don’t need a robotic arm to dock, these limits pose a problem in moving large payloads in that area of the Station. For this reason, already in the 1990s collaboration between ESA and Roscosmos was started to design a robotic arm. The ERA suffered from the MLM launch delays but has now been launched as well.
Russia announced its plans to build a national space station years ago and in early 2021 still confirmed its intention to abandon the International Space Station disconnecting its modules to reuse them. The problems of the Russian space program, shown brutally in the delays accumulated in the development and launch of the MLM, led to a general skepticism about the possibility of carrying out this project, so the new module could remain part of the Station.