Progress launch to space station fails

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WASHINGTON — A Progress cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station failed to reach orbit after launch Dec. 1, a failure that should not have an immediate impact on operations of the station and its crew.

The Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress MS-04 spacecraft lifted off on schedule at 9:51 a.m. Eastern from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The initial phases of the launch appeared to go well, but there was later confusion about whether the spacecraft has reached orbit and deployed its navigation antennas and solar arrays.

According to a statement issued by the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, telemetry from the rocket ended 6 minutes and 22 seconds after liftoff, partway through the engine burn of the Soyuz’s third stage. Roscosmos said the spacecraft crashed in a “remote and unpopulated mountainous area” of the Republic of Tuva, a region of Russia in southern Siberia on the border with Mongolia.

The spacecraft was carrying about 2.5 tons of cargo for the station, including equipment, food, water and propellant. Had the spacecraft launched successfully, it would have docked with the station Dec. 3 and remained there for several months.

Progress MS-04
The Progress MS-04 spacecraft being prepared for its Dec. 1 launch. Credit: Roscosmos

The supplies, intended primarily for the three Russian cosmonauts on the station, were not critical. NASA said after the failure that there were large stockpiles of key supplies on the station.

In a Nov. 14 presentation to a NASA Advisory Council human exploration and operations committee meeting, Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, said reserves of most supplies would last on the station well into 2017 even without the Progress mission. “We’re doing really well on consumables,” he said then. “We’ve learned a lot over the years on how to manage our consumables.”

A chart Scimemi showed at the meeting indicated that, without the Progress mission, the limiting supply was water, but even there supplies would did not dip into a reserve until March.

Additional supply missions are planned for the station in the next several months. A Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) cargo spacecraft was scheduled for launch on Dec. 9 on an H-2 rocket prior to the Progress accident. That HTV launch, according those familiar with station planning, could be delayed a few days to add any critical cargo items lost in the Progress failure.

Orbital ATK plans to launch its next Cygnus cargo mission on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 in early 2017, most likely in March. SpaceX may also resume Dragon cargo missions to the ISS in early 2017, depending on its launch schedule and its success in resuming Falcon 9 launches after a Sept. 1 pad explosion. The Falcon 9 return-to-flight mission, carrying 10 Iridium Next satellites, is scheduled for Dec. 16 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The station’s six-person crew was notified of the failure later in the day, and appeared to take the loss in stride. “We are fine up here and will function fine until the next supply spacecraft arrives,” Thomas Pesquet, a European Space Agency astronaut on the station, tweeted several hours after the failed launch.

The launch failure is the second loss of a Progress cargo spacecraft in just over a year and a half. The Progress M-27M spacecraft spun out of control after separation from its upper stage on an April 2015 launch and reentered in early May. A Russian investigation blamed a “design peculiarity” between the spacecraft and the upper stage of the new Soyuz-2 rocket for the mission failure.