Russian spacecraft controllers have given up attempts to salvage a resupply ship that was left tumbling in the orbit due to a post-launch technical failure en route to the International Space Station.
The 2.6bn rouble (£33m) Progress M-27M space capsule, packed with 2,722kg of food, water, fuel and scientific experiments, was originally scheduled to dock at the orbital outpost on Tuesday but will now be left to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on its own.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos estimated the capsule, gradually losing altitude with every orbit, will be drawn by the Earth’s gravity back into the atmosphere at some point between May 5 and 7. The Russians will be able to estimate the time more precisely within three days of the event.
Under normal circumstances, re-entering spacecraft are guided to burn over a remote area in the Pacific Ocean to reduce risk to people and property on the ground. In this case, the controllers will have no influence over where exactly the spacecraft’s remnants will hit the surface.
However, according to Vladimir Solovyev, Roscosmos flight director for the ISS, it is likely that no debris will reach the Earth.
"[The descent trajectory] indicates that the structural elements of the ship will not reach the Earth's surface," Solovyev told Reuters.
Satellite tracking data indicates the capsule is currently orbiting at an altitude of approximately 197km.
Russia did not specify the nature of the technical problems that led to the spaceship’s loss. The launch itself went off without any problems. After the separation from the third stage of the rocket, the spacecraft deployed its solar panels. However, when ground controllers attempted to establish contact, they were unable to do so despite multiple attempts. Tracking data subsequently revelaed the capsule was spinning in a slightly incorrect orbit.
The incident, the latest in a string of mishaps that have afflicted Russia’s space industry in the past years, will cause further delays for the two Progress cargo missions scheduled later this year.
Nasa provided reassurance that the loss of the Progress supply delivery mission would not disrupt the operations of the ISS, as the crew has sufficient supplies for at least four months. During that period, SpaceX’s Dragon as well as Japan’s HTV are scheduled to make regular cargo delivery runs.
Russia, the only country currently capable of launching human crew to the ISS, has lost several satellites due to launch explosions and other failures over the past years. In August last year, two satellites intended to form the backbone of the European navigational constellation Galileo were left in incorrect orbits after a post-launch glitch, with their usability heavily compromised.