Progress Anomaly Strains Space Station Supply Lines


Updated 4:15 p.m. Eastern time.

WASHINGTON — A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft suffered technical problems immediately after its launch early April 28, delaying its docking with the International Space Station and raising new concerns about the station’s resupply capabilities.

A Russian Progress supply ship in orbit. Credit: NASA photo
A Russian Progress supply ship in orbit. Credit: NASA photo

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket carrying the Progress M-27M spacecraft lifted off on schedule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:09 a.m. Eastern time April 28. The launch appeared to take place normally, putting the spacecraft on track to dock with the ISS about six hours later.

However, shortly after the Progress reached orbit, controllers reported that two antennas used as part of the spacecraft’s docking system failed to deploy properly. NASA announced that the docking would be delayed until early April 30 to give engineers time to resolve the antenna problem.

In an update provided several hours after launch, NASA said the Progress was also experiencing problems with its onboard propulsion, and had entered into a slow roll. Controllers will make another attempt to restore control of the spacecraft during a series of passes over Russian ground stations starting late April 28. Because of the continued problems, NASA said teams were “standing down” on the April 30 docking attempt.

The Progress is carrying more than 2,700 kilograms of cargo, including food, water, and fuel, for the ISS crew. Should the spacecraft be unable to dock with the station, the loss of that cargo could put a strain on the station’s current reserves of food and other consumables.

In a presentation to a committee of the NASA Advisory Council here April 9, NASA officials said that food supplies on the ISS would reach a threshold called “reserve level” on July 24, and go to zero by Sept. 5. That assumed that the station received no more supplies beyond a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission launched to the station in April.

Chart from an April 9, 2015 NASA presentation
Chart from an April 9, 2015 NASA presentation

The other major limiting consumable is a solid waste container known by the Russian acronym KTO. Without additional cargo missions beyond the Dragon flight, KTO supplies would reach the reserve level July 20 and be exhausted on Sept. 2. Other consumables, including water, would not reach reserve levels until later in the year or early 2016.

NASA stressed in a statement issued on the afternoon of April 28 that a potential loss of the Progress would not have an immediate effect on the station. “The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station,” the statement read. The Progress does carry some items for NASA, including space parts and crew clothing, which are all replaceable, according to the agency.

Prior to the Progress anomaly, the station’s resupply capabilities were already limited by the October 2014 loss of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft when its Antares launch vehicle failed shortly after liftoff. The retirement of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle after its fifth launch last year, and the infrequent use of Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), have required the station to rely on Progress and Dragon spacecraft for cargo resupply.

The next Dragon launch is scheduled for June 19, followed by another in early September. An HTV is planned for launch Aug. 17.