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The Russian Progress M-27M spacecraft, which tumbled out of control shortly after reaching orbit on the morning of Tuesday, April 28, apparently plunged to a fiery end in Earth's atmosphere late Thursday night.

Update: Russian spacecraft meets fiery end over the Pacific

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, May 8, 2015, 12:16 PM - The Russian Progress M-27M spacecraft, which tumbled out of control shortly after reaching orbit on the morning of Tuesday, April 28, apparently plunged to a fiery end in Earth's atmosphere late Thursday night.

Roscosmos - the Russian Space Agency - reported that the Progress M-27M spacecraft (aka "Progress 59") had entered the atmosphere on its 160th orbit, at 10:04 p.m. ET Thursday night (5:04 a.m. Moscow Standard Time, Friday morning), somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center confirmed the re-entry shortly thereafter.

This Space Station view of the October 2011 burn-up of Progress 42P, shows what Progress 59's re-entry would have looked like to anyone who spotted it from orbit.

Progress 42P, as seen from the ISS as it reentered the atmosphere on October 29, 2011. Credit: NASA

As the burn-up of Progress 59 would have taken place far from any stations on the ground, it is unlikely that it was seen, though. Any pieces that managed to survive the disintegration would have splashed down into the water.

Progress cargo vessels are not designed to be reusable, and thus they are used to dispose of station trash as they burn up on re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

Tumbling out of control

On Tuesday, April 28, Progress 59 launched from Kazakhstan, carrying carrying more than 2,700 kilograms of food, water, fuel and additional cargo on a run to the International Space Station. This was the second launch of Russia's new Soyuz 2-1A rockets, the first having carried a spy satellite into orbit at the end of February.

According to NASA, the space station had just flown over the launch site a few minutes prior to liftoff, and the spacecraft was plotted on a six-hour speed route to chase down the station and dock later Tuesday morning. However, as Progress 59 reached orbit, controllers on the ground noted that the spacecraft's communications antennas failed to deploy, and sporadic contact indicated that the craft was in a slow tumble.

Video footage captured by cameras on the spacecraft confirmed this:

Credit: NASA

One day later, Roscosmos reported that although they were in communication with the spacecraft and were monitoring its on-board systems, flight controllers had determined there was no way for the cargo vessel to safely dock with the space station.

Two problems immediately presented themselves in this situation:

  1. According to reports, the orbit the spacecraft ended up in was apparently not a very good one, with a closest-approach to Earth of just over 120 kilometres above the ground. This left some leeway before it reached the Karman line - 100 km up, where a spacecraft is considered to be re-entering the atmosphere - but each orbit caused atmospheric drag to slow the spacecraft down and reduce its altitude, and

  2. With the spacecraft tumbling, less sunlight was collected by its solar panels. This meant that the spacecraft's batteries would not recharge as efficiently as they normally could, and when they ran out of power, communications would cease, leaving no hope of recovery.

This initially forced controllers to delay the expected arrival of the Progress spacecraft to Thursday, April 30, then put it off again, and in later updates, postponed it indefinitely.

The reason for the spacecraft's failure is still unknown, although some have speculated that an explosion may have happened as Progress detached from the rocket's third stage. 

Station crew in no danger

With Progress 59 lost, the space station isn't in any trouble at the moment.

According to a NASA presentation from earlier this month, the crew has until July 24 before they would need to go on "reserve levels" for food, and they would run out ("zero level") on September 5, 2015. An equally worrying set of dates are when the station's solid waste system becomes full, which is a few days before each of the "reserve" and "zero level" thresholds for food.

More resupply missions from SpaceX are scheduled for June 22 (CRS-7) and September 2 (CRS-8), which can replenish the ISS's food and supplies. However, any delays with these launches could cause problems for the crew.

Sources: NASA | Vandenberg Airforce Base | NASA Earth ObservatoryRoscosmos | SEN.com | SpaceNews | NASA (PDF) | SpaceXStats

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