A Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress MS-04 spacecraft lifts off Dec. 1. A problem during the rocket's third stage burn caused the loss of the mission. Credit: NASA

Russian investigators believe the failure of a third-stage engine caused the loss of a Progress spacecraft launched to the International Space Station last month.

Roscosmos said Wednesday the leading cause for the Dec. 1 launch failure was foreign particles that got into the Soyuz rocket’s engine, causing a fire and explosion that ripped apart the oxidizer tank.

The report indicated the “defective workmanship” in the assembly of the engine may have also played a role in the failure.

Roscosmos is developing a plan for “priority measures” to address the issue to support the launch of the next Progress mission, now scheduled for no earlier than Feb. 21. [TASS]

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NASA is delaying contract awards for its Asteroid Redirect Misison (ARM) as it waits out budget uncertainty. At a meeting of an asteroid science advisory group Wednesday, NASA said contracts for the ARM spacecraft bus, as well the selection of hosted payloads and members of the mission’s investigation team, would be delayed from March and April to May and June. The reason for the delay is because NASA is operating under a continuing resolution until late April, making it unclear how much money it will have available for ARM. At the same meeting, ESA officials said they’re working on a scaled-down version of its Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) spacecraft, which failed to secure funding at the agency’s ministerial meeting last month. [SpaceNews]

NASA is ready to move ahead with plans to buy Earth science data from commercial smallsat constellations. Agency officials said at a meeting this week that a request for information they issued last year convinced them that there are companies able to provide imagery and radio occultation data they seek, and plan to move ahead with a pilot data purchase program once they receive funding for it. NASA’s Earth science program is looking at other ways to make use of smallsats, but doesn’t expect that smallsats can meet all of their needs. [SpaceNews]

A pair of Chinese commercial imaging satellites have returned their first images. The two SuperView-1 satellites, launched in late December, are producing images with a resolution of 0.5 meters, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The satellites were initially placed into a lower-than-planned orbit, apparently because of a problem with their Long March 2D rocket, but have since raised their orbits. [Xinhua]

SpaceX is studying the construction of additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral. A draft environmental assessment indicates the company wants to build two additional pads at the former Launch Complex 13, which the company calls Landing Zone 1. The additional pads would support the simultaneous landings of the three booster cores of the Falcon Heavy. The report also includes development of a temporary processing facility for Dragon spacecraft at the site. [NASASpaceFlight.com]

India is cramming more satellites onto its rockets, and launching more rockets, in order to meet demand. The Indian space agency ISRO recently added 20 satellites to a launch of its PSLV rocket planned for next month, bringing the mission’s total number of satellites to 103. ISRO chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar said his agency is seeking “optimal utilization” of each rocket’s capacity to meet demand for satellite launches. Kumar said ISRO is planning to perform an average of nearly one launch per month this year. [IANS]

A decision is expected this summer on the future of the Arecibo radio observatory. The National Science Foundation, which currently provides the majority of the telescope’s funding, will soon seek proposals for partnerships that can take on the majority of the telescope’s costs. The NSF is also completing an environmental assessment that examines several options for the radio telescope’s future, including mothballing or tearing down the giant dish. A final decision is expected shortly after the completion of that report. NASA also uses Arecibo for its planetary radar capabilities, including tracking and characterizing asteroids. [Nature]

The moon is slightly older than previously thought. Analysis of zircon grains returned from the moon on the Apollo 14 mission found they are 4.51 billion years old. That would indicate the moon formed within 60 million years after the solar system itself, rather than the 150-200 million years later as previously estimated. That older age, scientists suggest, may be a better fit to models of the formation of the moon. [Space.com]

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...