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Russian cargo ship experiences problems after launch

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Apr 28, 2015, 17:12 UTC, Updated Apr 28, 2015, 20:58 UTC

Sen—Russia dispatched its second cargo supply mission of the year to the International Space Station (ISS) Tuesday morning—but it immediately ran into problems.

A Soyuz-2-1a rocket blasted off from Site 31 at the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan exactly as scheduled at 10:09:50 Moscow Time (07:09 UTC). The three-stage booster carried the Progress M-27M cargo ship bound to the outpost with 2.5 tons of supplies for six members of the 43rd long-duration expedition onboard the station.

The spacecraft reached orbit less than nine minutes after liftoff and deployed its power-generating solar arrays and a trio of communications antennas. However, the mission control in Korolev was not able to confirm a successful opening of a pair of the Kurs rendezvous antennas onboard the seven-ton vehicle, as data coming from the spacecraft had become sporadic, NASA said.

According to the official Russian press, only two out of five antennas had been deployed. As a result, the mission was immediately switched to a longer, 34-orbit rendezvous profile with the ISS, which would give ground controllers extra time to troubleshoot the issue. Had they been able to resolve the issue within hours, the docking of the cargo ship at the station would have taken place around 9:03 UTC on Thursday April 30.

In addition, ground tracking from the NORAD radar initially indicated that the rocket released the spacecraft into a 123.5 by 305.1 km orbit, as opposed to a planned 193 by 238 km orbit. With a perigee (lowest point) of this wrong orbit passing through a considerably denser atmosphere, there were fears the Progress could slow down and plunge back to Earth. Within an hour, Roscosmos published a statement confirming that orbital parameters for the spacecraft were correct—but the mission was not yet out of the woods.

Following a second pass of the Progress within a range of Russian ground stations around three hours after the liftoff, the mission control in Korolev was again not able to get any credible telemetry from the spacecraft confirming either the antennas' deployment or the activation of its propulsion system, NASA said. At the same time, tracking data indicated that the two pre-programmed orbit-correction maneuvers scheduled during the first orbit had not taken place, the Interfax news agency reported citing an unnamed source at the mission control. The failure to correct the orbit on time had a domino effect on the subsequent two-day rendezvous timeline with the station, ruling out a docking attempt at the outpost on Thursday.

Around 14:45 Moscow Time, the Progress made another pass over Russia and ground controllers made yet another attempt to communicate with the spacecraft. Downlinked TV images showed a kaleidoscope of Earth surface and the sky, indicating fast out-of-control rotation of the vehicle. According to NASA, some telemetry was received from the Progress but all attempts to establish control over the spacecraft were unsuccessful.

The mission control in Korolev made Tuesday's fourth and final attempt to communicate with the Progress M-27M around 16:30 Moscow Time, again without success. After that engineers had to wait until Wednesday when the Earth's rotation would bring the spacecraft back within range of Russian ground stations.

The mission control calculations show that the spacecraft will remain in its initial orbit for no less than 20 orbits or 30 hours before reentering the Earth's atmosphere as a result of friction with a rarified air at that altitude.

According to the original plan, the mission (P59 in the ISS flight manifest) was expected to spend less than six hours en route to the station, which would be enough for the spacecraft to make four full revolutions around the planet. Upon reaching the vicinity of the outpost at 12.46 UTC (15:46 Moscow), the Progress was to make a flyaround of the station, followed by few minutes of station-keeping and concluding with a final berthing at the Earth-facing port of the Pirs Docking Compartment (SO1) of the station at 13.06 UTC (16:06 Moscow Time).

During its trek to the station, engineers on the ground also planned to test a brand-new satellite navigation system (ASN-K), which should give the spacecraft state-of-the-art guidance capabilities and help cut travel time to the outpost to just three orbits for both cargo and crewed missions.

In preparation for the arrival of the fresh cargo ship, one of the preceding vehicles—Progress M-25M—undocked from the station on Saturday, April 25. After a day-long autonomous flight, the trash-filled carrier was directed into the atmosphere to burn up over the remote South Pacific region between New Zealand and South America.

The current Expedition 43 crew includes US astronauts Scott Kelly and Terry Virts, European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko.

Kelly and Kornienko are at the beginning of an almost year long stay onboard the outpost for a series of medical and biological studies of the human body in space.