Russian Cargo Freighter to Space Station Broken on Launch

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Yesterday's launch of a Russian Progress cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) went very badly, leaving the vehicle in the wrong orbit and in a slow spin.  Progress 59 in NASA-speak, or M-27m in Russian labeling, is expected to burn up without completing its mission of delivering more than 6,000 pounds of food, fuel, and supplies to the space station.

The unmanned Progress 59 was launched at 3:09 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, April 28, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with an expected six hour flight from ground to docking with ISS. Russian flight control could not confirm health of the spacecraft's systems once it was in orbit, as well as deployment of rendezvous and navigation antennas.

Controllers have attempted to establish positive control of the vehicle on multiple occasions on April 28 and 29 , but have only received limited telemetry, including video from the craft indicating it was in a slow spin. Observations by the U.S. Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) confirm that the vehicle is rotating 360 degrees every five seconds. Also seen: 44 pieces of debris in the vicinity of the resupply vehicle and its upper stage rocket body.

Image via Shutterstock

At this point, the best case scenario is for Russia to establish positive control over the spacecraft and be able to put it into a controlled reentry over the uninhabited South Pacific. Worst case is the spacecraft breaks up in an uncontrolled fashion with any surviving pieces falling on an inhabited area, but the likelihood of the worst case happening and causing property damage or injury is slim.

NASA officials and their Russian counterparts are now reviewing current consumables status onboard the space station and the supply manifest. If the space station received no more supplies today, food supplies would run out by September 5 with another critical consumable exhausted by early September.  Other options NASA could consider to stretch supplies is reducing space station crew from six people down to three, but that would play havoc with on-orbit research and the much-touted year long stay in orbit for Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko as a part of human health research for a future Mars mission.

The next U.S. commercial supply launch is a SpaceX Dragon scheduled for June 19 with another in early September.  A Japanese HTV supply launch is scheduled for August 17.

Normally, loss of a Progress cargo freighter would be no big deal in the larger scheme, but one of NASA's two commercial supply providers is currently grounded, tightening NASA options for keeping the space station running. 

Orbital Sciences Corporation (Now Orbital-ATK) Orb-3 supply mission blew up seconds after launch from Wallops Island, Virginia on October 28.  Orbital-ATK has a cargo makeup flight penciled in for November of this year, with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. An upgraded version of the Antares is supposed to be ground tested at Wallops Island, Virginia this fall, with launch operations from Wallops resuming in early 2016.

This is the second loss of a Progress cargo freighter in the ISS program and the third cargo loss overall including Orb-3. Progress 44 failed to make orbit on August 24, 2011, part of a group of Russian launch failures.   




Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

Contributing Editor

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