Stricken Progress 59 spaceship to burn up in Earth's atmosphere

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Progress 59 is of an almost identical configuration to Progress 41, seen above undocking from the ISS (Photo: NASA)

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Repeated attempts by Russian mission controllers have failed to rescue the stricken Progress 59 cargo spacecraft. It is now expected that the unmanned resupply ship will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at some point over the next few weeks, resulting in the complete destruction of both the spacecraft and its cargo.

Things have gone from bad to worse for the Russian-made cargo ship since launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:09 a.m. EDT on Tuesday morning, laden with over 6,000 lb (2,722 kg) of fuel, food and supplies for the crew of the International Space Station. Soon after insertion into a preliminary orbit, Russian operators failed to ascertain the health of the vehicle in a routine post-launch procedure.

Furthermore, ground control was unable to ascertain whether or not the antennas ordinarily required to dock with the station had even been deployed. At this point, Progress 59 was taken off of the expedited rendezvous schedule, and given a more leisurely two-day, 34-orbit docking target, which would see it rendezvous with the ISS at 5:03 a.m. EDT Thursday. The hope was that by this time, mission control would have been able to regain control of the spacecraft and troubleshoot the docking antennas.

As Progress 59 made repeated passes over the Russian ground stations, mission control attempted to send a command through to the spacecraft's telemetry system in order to ascertain whether the ship had deployed its antennas, and was therefore salvageable. Unfortunately, due to a combination of sporadic telemetry and issues in uploading the commands to the spacecraft, operators were unable to receive confirmation. The situation was only destined to get worse, and at 8:15 a.m. EDT, it was declared that on top of the existing telemetry malfunction, there was now an issue with the pressurization of the manifolds in the propulsion system, leading the spacecraft to fall into a slow spin.

Progress 59 sitting ready on the launch pad (Photo: NASA)

Russian operators battled to regain control of the stricken spacecraft as it repeatedly passed over ground stations. Finally, at 9:50 a.m. EDT on the 29th, docking was declared out of the question, leaving Progress 59 consigned to its fate of sinking back into Earth's atmosphere in a decaying orbit.

However, whilst the loss of Progress 59, and the earlier destruction of the American Cygnus freighter in October last year may appear to paint an alarming picture for the crew of the ISS, there is no need to panic just yet. The ISS has an abundant stockpile of vital supplies such as food and water that will keep both crew and station in good health far beyond the next planned resupply mission, which will come in the form of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft in June.

Mission Control Houston, ESA and Russian ballistics specialists are currently tracking the path of the spacecraft in order to determine when it will re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and whether it will endanger any space-bound assets along the way.

Source: NASA

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