Russia’s mission control said the ship docked on schedule at 0219 GMT on Sunday and the crew — Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, John Phillips of the United States and Italian Roberto Vittori — afterwards opened the hatch and entered the space station.

The Soyuz TMA-6 blasted off on Friday from the Russian space base at Baikonur in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

Mr Krikalev, who is to be the commander of the new space station team, and Mr Phillips, the mission’s flight engineer, are scheduled to remain at the station for almost six months.

Mr Vittori is scheduled to return to Kazakhstan on April 24 along with the current ISS crew, Russia’s Salizhan Sharipov and American Leroy Chiao, who arrived at the orbiting station in October.

During his 10-day mission, Mr Vittori will carry out experiments in the fields of human physiology, biology and technology.

Daniel Sacotte, the European Space Agency’s Director of Human Spaceflight, said the presence of an Italian astronaut on the mission showed that Europe was increasingly a “key partner” in space research.

During their stay the crew will receive the American space shuttle Discovery, which is due to blast off between May 15 and June 3, marking the end of a two-year break in operations following the Columbia space shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003.

The shuttle will be delivering food, water, supplies and a replacement gyroscope, which is used to help position the station.

The Russian Soyuz capsule has been the only means of getting astronauts to the station since Columbia disintegrated as it was returning to earth, killing all seven astronauts onboard.