A Russian Progress cargo ship carrying supplies to the International Space Station is spinning out of control and will reportedly plummet back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere.

Progress M-27M was launched from Baikonour at 07:09GMT on Tuesday, April 28, carrying three tons of food, fuel and other supplies to the space station. The launch proceeded smoothly until a malfunction in the rocket’s third stage separation resulted in telemetry issues. According to NASA’s Mission Control center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Russian ground controllers did not receive complete telemetry. The solar panels were deployed. But they did not get confirmation of navigational or rendezvous antenna deployment or the pressurization of the manifold system for the propulsion system. The navigation antenna handles autonomous dockings with the space station, although a manual docking option is available. Without complete control, they decided to postpone docking, extending the flight by 48 hours instead of the usual 6 hours.

Controllers tried to recover command of the ship over multiple passes over Russian ground stations but to no avail. While the Russian Space Agency continues to assess the situation, current ISS residents American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko revealed that flight controllers have given up trying to command the cargo carrier. The crew is no danger of running out of supplies as the station is well stocked at the moment.

The ship is also spinning wildly, 360 degrees every five seconds, thus receiving less solar power. When it runs out of fuel and power in the next week and a half, the cargo ship is expected to reenter and partially burn up in the atmosphere. But unlike previous Progress spacecraft, this will be an uncontrolled reentry, with a probability in the order of 1 in 2000, according to an estimate of Tommaso Sgobba of IAASS, that some surviving fragments may cause casualties on ground. ESA director Thomas Reiter said that its “altitude is sufficiently below the space station to pose any problem, but some satellites might need to take evasive maneuvers”. The US Air Force Joint Space Operations Center is tracking the craft and has observed 44 pieces of debris in the vicinity whether from the spacecraft or the rocket is not known at this point.

A similar incident involving the Progress spacecraft occured in 2011 when contact was lost with a Progress 44 ship after a third stage engine failure. The spacecraft did not reach orbit and the debris fell back down over Siberia without causing any injury.

– Video from Progress cam shows spacecraft spinning uncontrollably at Earth’s orbit

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About the author

Ramasamy Venugopal

Born and brought up in India, Ramasamy has a bachelor's in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Anna University, Chennai and a Master in Space Studies from the International Space University, Strasbourg. He has experience in the telecommunication industry having worked at Ericsson and Verizon India. His major interests are Astronomy, Planetary science, space advocacy and outreach.

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