A Russian Soyuz craft has been launched into the morning skies over Kazakhstan, carrying three astronauts on their way to the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Japan's Akihito Hoshide will travel two days before reaching their three colleagues already at the permanent space outpost.


The Soyuz-FG rocket carrying a new crew to the International Space Station blasts off from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Family members and colleagues watched Sunday's launch from an observation platform at the Russian-leased cosmodrome in the dry southern steppes of the sprawling Central Asian country.

The Soyuz jettisoned three rocket booster stages as it was propelled into orbit, which takes just over nine minutes. At that stage, a doll given to Malenchenko as a mascot by his daughter and suspended over the three astronauts floated out of view on television footage, indicating the craft had escaped the Earth's gravitational pull.

Williams gave a thumbs-up sign and waved to onboard cameras as Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin congratulated the crew over radio control. Malenchenko, who is piloting the Soyuz, is one of Russia's most experienced astronauts and is making his fifth voyage into space.

Second mission

Williams, who was born in Euclid, Ohio, and raised in Massachusetts, is on her second mission and will further extend the record for the longest sojourn in space for a female astronaut. She spent 195 days at the space station in 2006-2007.

Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and American astronaut Joseph Acaba have been working at the space station since mid-May.

The space station, which orbits up to 410 kilometres above the Earth, is braced to handle an unprecedented level of traffic. Japan's HTV3 cargo ship will dock with the space station next week and will be the first of nine craft making contact with the orbiting satellite over a 17-day span.

The Soyuz is schedule to dock Tuesday with the space station at 08:52 a.m. Moscow time.