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Wayward spacecraft set to plunge to Earth

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 8, 2015, 4:01 UTC

Sen—An out-of-control unmanned Russian spacecraft is due to reenter Earth's atmosphere and burn up. 

The last forecast from the Russian space agency is that the Progress M-27M cargo ship will reenter Earth's atmosphere between 01:13 and 04:51 Moscow Time on Friday (from 22:13 Thursday to 01:51 Friday UTC).

That was the third prognosis issued by the agency in 48 hours, which significantly narrows the reentry time period, but still leaves an ocean-wide window of uncertainty over where exactly surviving pieces of debris from the mission might fall.

According to the latest advisory issued by the US military, the reentry is predicted to take place at 01:36 UTC on Friday over Central Asia, where borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge. However, such predictions are notoriously inaccurate.

An absolute majority of the seven-ton spacecraft, including its toxic propellant, will likely be incinerated by plasma of the hypersonic reentry, however some small components made of heat-resistant materials might make it all the way to the surface, experts say.

Progress M-27M was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 28. However, mission control in Korolev did not have chance to guide the vehicle for its intended rendezvous with the station after its release into an initial parking orbit less than nine minutes into the flight. The third stage of the Soyuz-2-1a rocket, which launched the spacecraft, is now suspected as the cause of the failure, however the exact culprit for a likely explosion generating 44 trackable debris remains unknown.

The mystery will have to be resolved before Soyuz rockets in the Russian flight manifest can proceed to the launch pad.

The Interfax news agency has already reported that the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft—slated to go to the International Space Station on May 26 with a crew of three—will be delayed by one and a half to two months.

Unofficial sources also say that a Soyuz-2-1a rocket, which was scheduled to launch a spy satellite from Russia's military launch site in Plesetsk on May 15, will also be grounded for now.