The Russian spacecraft Progress M-27M is officially lost and will fall to the ground

The Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft blasting off atop a Soyuz 2-1A rocket (Photo courtesy TsENKI. All rights reserved)
The Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft blasting off atop a Soyuz 2-1A rocket (Photo courtesy TsENKI. All rights reserved)

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has officially given up hope of taking control of the Progress M-27M spacecraft. The attempts to contact it made on Tuesday and Wednesday had no success. Yesterday the docking to the ISS was called off and then the cargo spacecraft has been declared lost. The consequence is that it will fall into the atmosphere with no control disintegrating with all supplies it’s carrying.

The Progress M-27M spacecraft blasted off on Tuesday April 28, 2015 on a Soyuz 2-1A rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Initially, everything seemed to go as planned but after the separation of the cargo spacecraft from the rocket’s last stage it became clear that there was something wrong.

The problem manifested because of the few data that came from the Progress M-27M spacecraft. The deployment of the various navigation antennas wasn’t confirmed and then came news of a possible wrong trajectory. Worse still, the few images received indicated that the cargo spacecraft was spinning.

The mission control center made all the attempts to restore communication with the Progress M-27M spacecraft to take control but with no success. It was supposed to reach the International Space Station in 6 hours but quickly the rendezvous was postponed until today in the hope of being able to salvage the mission. Unfortunately, this possibility was called off and now the entire mission has been aborted.

An investigation will be needed to figure out what went wrong. One option seriously considered after a quick evaluation of the available data is that something didn’t work in the separation of the Progress M-27M spacecraft from the Soyuz rocket’s third stage. An issue yet to be identified may have led to a collision after the separation, damaging the antennas but also other systems of the cargo spacecraft.

US military identified 44 pieces of debris near the Progress M-27M spacecraft and the Soyuz rocket’s third stage. This is compatible with the hypothesis of the collision but also with that of an explosion on board the cargo spacecraft. It’s plausible that the spacecraft’s spinning is due to the same cause.

The International Space Station crew has supplies for some months. The next resupply mission by SpaceX is scheduled for June. A problem could be the fact that the Progress spacecraft are also used to boost the Station’s orbit, which tends to fall slightly in time.

Another possible problem is the fact that the launching system of the Progress  spacecraft and various on-board systems are the same of the launching system and on-board systems used to send astronauts in space. If there’s a potential hazard to the personnel that should be sent to the International Space Station in a few weeks it must be found quickly.

Right now there are various possible options for adapting the supply mission launch schedule and the possible changes of the date of the manned launch. It’s all very theoretical and the decisions of Roscosmos will arrive in the next few weeks, after the preliminary investigation.

Meanwhile, the orbit of the Progress M-27M spacecraft is decaying and it will disintegrate in the coming days. The consequence is that its descent will be uncontrolled so it will still take a while to understand exactly when it’s happening. Its trajectory won’t be the ideal one so there’s a risk that some pieces don’t disintegrate and reach the ground.

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