The Progress spacecraft looked good at the launch of its journey to the International Space Station, but problems quickly emerged. Now it’s tumbling out of control, can’t dock with the space station, and only has days to recover before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Top image: The launch of Progress M27M seemed successful, but problems quickly emerged. Credit: Tsenki/Roscosmos

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The launch of the Progress cargo craft to the International Space Station started off great, but quickly went totally off the rails. Now the space agency is accepting they can do nothing to recover the out-of-control craft, and are expecting it to burn up during a destructive reentry later this week.

The Progress M27M spacecraft was supposed to be on a normal cargo run to the International Space Station, but it’s run into a few problems. The first is that the newly-reconfigured Soyuz 2.1A rocket didn’t put it into quite the right orbit. This wouldn’t have been a problem, had it rendezvoused with the space station within hours (as was originally planned), or made the connection within a few days (which was the backup plan). But didn’t make either, and its orbit is elliptical enough that atmospheric drag is slowing it down and lowering its flight path faster than normal. This so-called “decaying” orbit has sent Progress into an unintended, uncontrolled destructive reentry. If nothing changes within the week, Progress will burn up. The cargo run will become a garbage run.

And the decaying orbit isn’t the only problem. The spacecraft is having severe communication problems, and is not responding to commands. Roscosmos isn’t specifying exactly what went wrong, but it appears that the navigational antenna didn’t fully deploy, and the fuel manifold may not have pressurized. Whatever happened mechanically, spacecraft is now literally tumbling in space, rotating at about one revolution every 5 seconds. The initial cause of the spin is unclear, but may be related to a bad separation from the third stage of the rocket, a leak (although none has been identified), or a stuck thruster.

We don’t know what set off this chain of events. This is only the second launch of Soyuz in its new configuration: it is entirely plausible that the final rocket stage glitched and rammed the Progress spacecraft after final separation. That would explain both the spin and the critical damage to the craft. This theory is consistent with an announcement from Joint Space Operations Center that it is currently tracking 44 pieces of space debris from either the rocket body or the spacecraft.

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From brief spurts of communication, we’re receiving some data from the spacecraft including the dizzying view of its uncontrolled spin. You can check out RussianSpaceWeb for a labelled interpretation of the data readouts, but the key bit is that propellant may be running low. When recovery was still theoretically feasible, that would’ve severely limited options. Alternatively, the change in propellant readout could be an artifact of the spacecraft switching into Test Mode. In a tiny bit of good news, Progress successfully deployed its pair of solar panels, so has plenty of power.

Making everything a bit more complicated, the communication windows during which communication with Progress are possible are extremely short. There have been two brief windows so far, one shortly after launch and another around 4pm Moscow Time on Tuesday night. The next opportunity is tonight at 3:50 pm Moscow Time. Each window only lasts about 15 minutes of an orbit, and repeats for four orbits before the spacecraft is out of range again. Troubleshooting will continue, but there is no indication that the spacecraft will be saved before it burns up.

The most recent update provided by NASA at 9:50 am EDT this morning is frustratingly vague:

Docking has been called off for the Progress 59 spacecraft. Russian flight controllers are continuing to assess the vehicle and what the plan going forward will be. Additional information will be provided as it becomes available.

Meanwhile, the update from Roscosmos acknowledges that they cannot identify what went wrong and are out of ideas on how to fix it. Instead, they’re attempting to understand what went wrong with a report expected on May 13th. If Roscosmos decides to ground future Soyuz/Progress flights, it will eventually pose a problem for the space station. While there are other means for delivering food and supplies to humanity’s orbital outpost, Progress is currently the only craft equipped to deliver propellant to the ISS — propellant the space station uses to move out of the way of hazardous space debris.

Space is hard. Bad launches happen, and spacecraft malfunction. Just like the Antares rapid unscheduled disassembly last year, this cargo run is an uncrewed flight carrying non-essential supplies, so the only real losses will be time, money, and pride. While last time it was a Progress spacecraft that restarted cargo runs to the space station, this time it will probably be the SpaceX Dragon cargo run, currently scheduled for June 19th.

The uncrewed spacecraft is carrying around 2,700 kilograms (3 tons) of supplies, but none of them are urgently needed by the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the station. Materials that will be lost if Progress cannot be salvaged include 880 kilograms (1,940 pounds) of propellant, 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of oxygen, 420 kilograms (926 pounds) of water, and 1,419 kilograms (3,128 pounds) of spare parts, supplies, and experimental science hardware. The hardware is all replaceable: crew clothing, backup spacewalk equipment, and spare parts for the station’s environmental control and life support system.

Current estimates for the date of uncontrolled destructive reentry are sometime between May 3rd and May 11th. The unusual orbit is actually keeping the spacecraft in space longer than it would’ve lasted in a normal launch; even so, the apogee dropped a full kilometer in just one day. Hopefully the entire craft will burn up completely during its inevitable reentry; if not, a hunt will surely ensue for any chunks that land.