A manned Soyuz spacecraft set a record for traveling to the International Space Station (ISS), arriving six hours after launch instead of the usual two days. Soyuz 34 lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, March 28 at 4:43 p.m. EDT (08:43 GMT) and docked with the ISS at 10: 28 PM EDT (03:28 GMT). It was able to catch up and match trajectories with the ISS in only four orbits using new techniques previously tested in ISS rendezvouses with Russian unmanned Progress cargo ships.

The Soyuz-TMA spacecraft carried ISS Expedition 35 crew members Chris Cassidy of NASA and Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), who joined Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency, Tom Marshburn of NASA and Roman Romanenko of Roscosmos. The latter have been on the station since December and the new crew will remain onboard for five months.

The faster rendezvous cuts down considerably the time the arriving crew to the ISS needs to spend cooped up in the tiny Soyuz capsule. This was achieved by launching Soyuz 34 as the ISS passed over Baikonur, which put the Soyuz 1,000 miles (1,600 km) behind the station.

However, reaching the ISS is more than just a catch-up race. It requires a series of timed engine burns to bring the Soyuz to the proper speed, position, and orbital trajectory to match the station’s if it isn't to end up merely whizzing past. To manage this in hours instead of days, the Soyuz was equipped with improved thrusters and maneuvering systems.

The vintage-design, Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft will now act as the crew’s return ferry and lifeboat for the ISS. They are sent up about once every six months, with the newer Soyuz capsule rotating out the older one before it reaches the end of its service life. Built in three parts, it consists of a orbital module, a descent module, and an instrumentation/propulsion module.

The video below features highlights of the docking.

Source: NASA