An uncrewed cargo ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) is now a bunch of burned wreckage in a remote region of Russia.
On Thursday morning, Roscosmos – Russia’s space agency – launched an expendable Progress module crammed with 5,383 lbs of food, water, medical equipment, toiletries, and other supplies toward the ISS. It was riding a Soyuz rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome site in Kazakhstan.
However, a little more than 6 minutes and 30 seconds into its roughly 9-minute flight, the Progress ship stopped communicating. That was more than 2 minutes before it was supposed to enter orbit, according to Spaceflight Now.
“After the launch of the Soyuz-U launch vehicle along with the Progress MS-04 cargo spacecraft, telemetry connection was lost on the 383th second of flight,” read a tweet from Roscosmos, according to a translation by RT.com, one of Russia’s state-controlled news agencies.
After that point, the Progress should have separated from the third and final upper stage of the Soyuz rocket.
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) December 1, 2016
NASA quickly told the Expedition 50 ISS crew aboard the space station about the incident.
“Unfortunately I have some not-so-great news for you guys,” a mission controller told astronauts. “Basically, what we saw was indications of the third-stage [separation] occurring a few minutes early and we haven’t had any communications with the Progress at all.”
When a spacecraft detaches too early from its rocket ride, it’s not a good situation. It doesn’t have enough speed to reach orbit and instead arcs back toward Earth, plows through its thick atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour, and either burns up, crashes, or both. Failure to separate leads to a similarly unfortunate outcome.
Earlier reports suggested that one of those scenarios had happened, suggesting the breakup and crash occurred over land in the Tuva region of Russia.
Unconfirmed reports of large explosion in the Tuva region of Russia after launch of #Progress65. May be debris, location good match.
— Alasdair Allan (@aallan) December 1, 2016
The Tuva region is just east of Kazakhstan and northwest of Mongolia:
- Google Maps; Business Insider
Roscomos later confirmed the loss of the Progress MS-04 about 118 miles above Tuva, a “rugged uninhabited mountainous territory,” the agency wrote in a release.
“[M]ost of the fragments were burned in the dense layers of the atmosphere,” it said, implying that some of the wreckage may have hit the ground.
The loss of Progress MS-04 poses a hiccup for operations aboard the ISS. However, Roscomos said the incident “will not affect the normal operation of the ISS systems and space station crew.” In a post for NASA’s Space Station blog, writer Mark Garcia backed up this assertion.
“The Expedition 50 crew is safe aboard the station,” Garcia wrote. “Consumables aboard the station are at good levels.”
NASA is also reminding the public that JAXA – Japan’s space agency – is launching its HTV-6 cargo ship to the ISS on December 9, so spaceflyers may not wait long for more supplies.
An investigation into the incident has begun
Soyuz rockets also launch astronauts and cosmonauts into space.
Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital ATK are developing alternative means of getting people to the ISS, since the Soyuz system is currently the only way to launch anyone into space.
Until then, NASA will continue to pay Russia up to $81 million per astronaut per launch, absent the rollout (and space agency approval) of something like SpaceX’s Dragon crew module atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
However, that rocket system also recently suffered a failure, though during a routine launchpad test.
Russia has formed a state commission to investigate why the Progress module never made it to space aboard the Soyuz rocket.