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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Christmas Presents Sent to Space

APThe Progress blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome late Wednesday.
An unmanned cargo ship carrying Christmas gifts and supplies hurtled through space toward the international space station on Thursday.

The Progress M-55 was launched at 21:39 p.m. Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and entered orbit about nine minutes later, after jettisoning three booster sections, said a duty officer with the Federal Space Agency. The officer said he was not authorized to give his name.

In addition to some 2.5 metric tons of food, water, books, DVDs and scientific equipment, the ship is also bringing cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut William McArthur chocolates, two red holiday caps and gifts from their families.

The ship was expected to dock with the space station orbiting at about 350 kilometers above the Earth late on Friday.

McArthur and Tokarev are in the third month of their six-month mission aboard the space station.

The Progress craft is the 20th to be sent to the station.

In a switch from the usual, its predecessor, Progress 19, will remain docked to the station. A Progress is usually undocked and deorbited shortly before the launch of the next Progress, clearing that docking port for the new arrival, NASA said in a statement.

In this case, mission managers have decided that Progress 19 will stay at the station so its remaining oxygen can be transferred, it said.

That also will give McArthur and Tokarev a chance to fill it completely with garbage and unneeded equipment.

It is scheduled to re-enter and subsequently burn in Earth's atmosphere in early March.

Russia's Progress cargo ships and Soyuz space capsules have been the ISS's lifeline since the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

The shuttle program was suspended for more than two years; the shuttle Discovery flew to the station in July, but problems with its insulation raised doubts about when the next shuttle would go into space.

Also Wednesday, a Kosmos 3M rocket carrying a military and a communications satellite successfully blasted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, the space agency duty officer said.

Russia's commercial space program has suffered a series of setbacks this year, as Moscow tries to compete in the international market for lucrative satellite launches.

A 120 million euro ($142 million) European Space Agency satellite was destroyed in October when a Russian booster failed.

In a separate mishap, the Russian military lost an experimental unmanned space vehicle as it returned to Earth during a test flight.

By comparison, Russia's manned space program -- with its Soyuz rockets and Progress cargo ships -- has served as a stalwart workhorse, reliably bringing crew and cargo back and forth to the international space station over the years.