The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) has lost control of a robotic cargo ship that’s now spinning wildly through space in a downward spiral to Earth where it will burn up upon re-entering the planet’s atmosphere.
The Progress 59 spacecraft could be tumbling around Earth’s orbit for up to a week and half before that happens, Thomas Reiter, director of human spaceflight and operations at the European Space Agency, told the Guardian.
The spacecraft is seven meters long and weighs about 2.5 tonnes with all the fuel and supplies it’s carrying.
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said it’s too soon to know where the spacecraft will be when it re-enters the atmosphere:
It’s too soon to be able to predict where it will enter the atmosphere, but Roscosmos and NASA/NORAD will be tracking it closely.
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) April 29, 2015
It’s extremely unlikely that anyone on Earth will be in danger when this happens though. But if it falls above a populated area we could see a cool light show as the spacecraft burns up.
Normally Russian Progress spacecraft hit the atmosphere on controlled re-entry paths over the Pacific Ocean so any chunks of debris that make it to Earth land in the ocean. Since this spacecraft is spinning out of control, we don’t where it will re-enter the atmosphere so it is possible that some debris pieces could make it to land.
However, as Ian Sample from the Guardian pointed out, two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and only 3% of the land is covered with urban areas. So the odds of anyone getting hit with a piece of debris is extremely low.
Right now the spacecraft is travelling over the Indian Ocean, and you can track its position as it continues its steady downward spiral at nearly 17,000 miles per hour. A statement from the Joint Space Operations Center says the spacecraft is completing a full 360-degree spin every five seconds.
A video taken yesterday shortly after the launch yesterday morning (April 28) shows the spacecraft spinning out of control. You can see the Earth and Sun coming quickly into and out of the frame:
The spacecraft was carrying food and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), but never made it to dock with the space station. Russia lost communication with the spacecraft shortly after it launched on Tuesday (April 28) due to a telemetry malfunction with its navigation antenna. Last night the spacecraft passed over Russian ground controls but the Space Agency was unsuccessful in re-establishing contact.
After several failed attempts to regain control of the wayward spacecraft, this morning NASA officials and Roscosmos called off any further attempts to dock the Progress 59 ship with the ISS. They say the crew on board the ISS have plenty of supplies left and are not in any kind of danger. The spacecraft wasn’t carrying any precious cargo either.
Now spaceflight officials will continue to monitor the spacecraft’s position and explore options for a water landing. Roscosmos reported the failed mission will cost about 2.59 billion rubles ($US50.8 million).
Russia’s Progress spacecraft have been resupplying the ISS for 15 years and they have a long track record of success.
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