Russian ISS resupply spacecraft spins out of control

A Russian spacecraft intended to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) has entered an out-of-control spin, and begun falling back to Earth.

The Progress spacecraft is an unpiloted version of the Russian Soyuz design and was  due to bring vital food, water and volatiles to the ISS as part of a long-standing program by Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Problems were first detected with the craft not long after its initial launch yesterday. Reports indicate that while the rocket launch was successful, the Progress spacecraft ran into trouble during stage separation.

Despite correct deployment of the craft’s solar panels, a software glitch caused a critical antenna array to not be deployed.

This lead to the Russian ground control team being unable to keep in contact with the spacecraft. This lack of communication resulted in inadequate control over the spacecraft’s propulsions systems, causing it to fall into a rapid spin.

Such a spin would make the craft impossible to dock with the ISS, as it would likely result in a catastrophic collision.

“To be honest, only a miracle can save the ship. There is no telemetry, and the spacecraft has not been able to get out of its spinning and be stabilized, so a manoeuvre involving distance or manual docking is becoming extremely dangerous: the crew and the ISS could die,” a source within Roscosmos told Russian news network RIA Novosti.

In the past 24 hours, Russian mission control put the craft into a new contingency orbital path while it attempted to regain contact with the spacecraft.

By all accounts however, these attempts have been completely unsuccessful, and without any miraculous intervention, the Progress spacecraft will fall back to Earth and burn up on the atmosphere within the coming days.

Astrophysicist and associate professor at the Australian National University, Charley Lineweaver, told the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that if the spacecraft continued on its current orbit it would “come down between May 5 and May 7”.

“Right now we don’t have any idea [where it will land] except that it will be at between plus-50 and minus-50 degrees latitude on the Earth’s surface and … that is something like two-thirds of the Earth,” Dr Lineweaver said.

Back up supply options

Should the craft be lost, it is unlikely that this will significantly effect ISS operations, as Roscosmos is able to bring forward its launch schedule and launch a new Progress spacecraft in 45 days.

Furthermore, in the event that the system is delayed due to the scientists being unable to discover what went wrong, there currently exists three alternative resupply craft: the SpaceX Dragon, Japanese H-11 and the Orbital ATK Cygnus.

According to NASA, the six crew members of the International Space Station (ISS) are safe and continuing regular operations are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.

A new SpaceX resupply mission (CRS-7) is due to launch on June 19.