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European astronaut set to command ISS launches on Soyuz

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The next European commander of the International Space Station has just blasted off into orbit.

German Alexander Gerst was joined in his Soyuz craft by Russian Sergei Prokopyev and Serena Auñón-Chancellor from the US.

The trio should arrive at the 400km-high outpost on Friday.

Gerst will act as a flight engineer until October, after which he will assume command of the station. He will be only the second European to do so.

The first was Belgian Frank De Winne, who led the crew onboard the ISS in 2009.

Gerst's mission is called Horizons. He has 50 bespoke experiments to perform on the orbiting platform.

Every astronaut gets to take up a few items of personal baggage. For the 42-year-old German, a native of Künzelsau, these include a piece of the Berlin Wall - a symbol, he says, of vanishing borders.

Gerst first served on the ISS in 2014. He trained in the same European astronaut class as Briton Tim Peake.

The group call themselves "the Shenanigans".

Gerst's activities can be followed on the European and US space agency websites, and on his Twitter feed, @astro_alex.

In January, Dr Auñón-Chancellor stepped in to replace fellow Nasa astronaut Jeanette Epps, who was originally set to fly on the mission.

Nasa did not give a reason for Dr Epps' withdrawal, but said she would be considered for future missions.

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