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Progress cargo freighter declared a complete loss

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Apr 30, 2015, 5:08 UTC

Sen—A Russian cargo ship launched to resupply the crew of the International Space Station on Tuesday will never make it to the outpost, becoming a 2.6 billion ruble (USD $50.5m) piece of space junk destined to disintegrate in a fiery reentry to Earth's atmosphere.

The crippled Progress M-27M is predicted slowly to lose speed and plunge back to Earth between May 5 and May 7, as a result of friction with the upper atmosphere.

The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and NASA admitted the inevitable today after engineers at mission control in Korolev had battled unsuccessfully for 24 hours to try to stabilize the fast-spinning Progress M-27M cargo freighter. Moreover, a serious problem with its engine and other systems had been confirmed.

According to Russian space officials, it is now certain that something went seriously wrong at the separation of the spacecraft from the third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a launch vehicle that delivered it into orbit. The data analysis indicated that the flow of telemetry was suddenly interrupted 1.5 seconds before the spacecraft had been released from its rocket, the head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov announced today.

According to First Deputy of Roscosmos Aleksandr Ivanov, who also chairs the State Commission responsible for testing manned space vehicles, the telemetry from the rocket was lost completely, while there were also interruptions of data coming from the spacecraft.

Specialists also determined that the main propulsion system onboard the spacecraft lost pressure and the spacecraft went into a tumble, making a full rotation every 4.5 seconds. The US military tracking facilities which observed the ship overnight came to a similar conclusion.

However it is still a mystery what caused the accident, or even whether the rocket or the spacecraft itself was responsible for the failure, Ivanov said. According to unofficial sources, there are some indications that the flight control system onboard the third stage failed to shutdown its engine in time for the spacecraft's release, meaning the engine on the rocket was still running when the Progress vehicle separated, leading to a violent collision between the two.

Such an outcome could explain the damage to the engine onboard the Progress M-27M, as well as the chaotic spin of the ship and the interruption in communications. An explosion or a rapid depressurization onboard one of the vehicles has not been ruled out either.

A full understanding of the accident is critically important, not only for future Progress launches, but also for a large array of Russian military and civilian missions, which rely on the Soyuz-2-1a rocket. Although station crews ride an older Soyuz-FG rocket, both launchers still share some components.

The investigation commission into the accident is now expected to deliver its findings by May 13, three days before another Soyuz-2-1a rocket is slated to launch a classified satellite from Russia's military spaceport of Plesetsk.

On May 26, the Soyuz-FG rocket is scheduled to launch another Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft with a crew of three. Russian space officials insisted today that there are no current plans to delay the mission. According to Ivanov, the investigative commission will work to clear the rocket for flight but only after delivery of all necessary documentation confirming the capability of the vehicle. "At this point we don't have serious doubts about (the rocket)," Ivanov said.

Both NASA and Roscosmos, as well as crew members onboard the ISS, reassured the public this morning that the station was well stocked up with supplies to last until the scheduled arrival of the seventh Dragon cargo ship from the US, currently planned in the middle or late June.

"As soon as we saw a possibility that (Progress) ship has a chance of not making it (to the station), we immediately conducted another analysis of everything we have onboard and I can absolutely responsibly tell you that we have enough of everything," Vladimir Soloviev, the Fight Director of the Russian segment of the ISS said today.

According to Ivanov, the launch of the next Russian cargo ship—Progress M-28M—will be re-scheduled for the third quarter of the year and Progress M-29M will be set to fly in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Although estimated to reenter the atmosphere between May 5 and May 7, the Russian mission control will know the reentry time more precisely within three days from the actual event, Soloviev said.

Spacecraft of this type are normally directed to burn up over a remote area of the Southern Pacific. Tracking data from numerous previous Progress missions had shown that no debris from the vehicle had actually reached the surface, Soloviev said.