Due to a failed supply run to the International Space Station (ISS), an unmanned Russian spacecraft, the Russian Progress, will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere faster than what was originally expected through previous calculations. The fiery end to spacecraft will occur early Friday morning, according to tracking data from the U.S. Air Force.
The Russian spacecraft was loaded with over three tons of fuel, food, and general supplies. The Soyuz class rocket was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 28. Mission flight controllers lost contact with the spacecraft after it reached orbit. Radar showed that it was in a dangerous tumbling motion. The cause of the failure is currently under investigation.
The U.S. Air Force’s Joint Operations Center, an agency that tracks orbiting satellites, space junk from previous satellites, and small rocky bodies, discovered around 44 pieces of debris from the unmanned space capsule being pulled back to Earth. They found that the Progress’s discarded upper-stage booster among other debris from the propulsion system. They stated this could possibly indicate that a malfunction with one of the rockets could have cause an explosion or other engine problem that happened just before or while the Russian spacecraft separated to engage its orbiting stage.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, declined to comment on the matter that the spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere on Friday. Current investigations have yet to prove the reason why the rocket malfunctioned.
The Progress spacecraft is unable to go to a further altitude above the Earth, which has led to it being pulled back to the ground. As recorded on Wednesday by the satellite tracking website n2yo.com, the Russian spacecraft was at an altitude of just 107 miles above the Earth, losing dozens of miles in altitude every day. Space-Track.org, a contractor-operated website used by the Air Force, has calculated that the Progress will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and impact with the ground at around 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).
The Air Force stated that the Russian spacecraft’s cargo and capsule will be burned up in the upper atmosphere. They also stated that all remaining debris will crash into the ocean. Roscosmos released a statement claiming, “Only a few small pieces of structural elements could reach the planet’s surface.” It is currently unknown where the Russian spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere or where in the ocean it will hit. Scientists explained that the Earth’s atmosphere creates a drag effect on satellites and other space debris. This cause the satellite’s location of impact very unstable due to the expanding and contracting of the atmosphere due to solar activity, weather, and many other factors.
Over the years, many other spacecraft and satellites larger than the Russian Progress have re-entered the atmosphere, uncontrolled, but safely. In 1979, Skylab, a 76 ton space station launched by the U.S., crashed into the Earth from a declining orbit. As well, a Russian spacecraft aimed at being launched as the Phobos-Grunt Mars venture failed and re-entered the atmosphere in 2012.
In 2011, a previous accident caused the disintegration of a Russian cargo capsule in 2011. Last year, Orbital ATK, a contractor for NASA, stated that they lost a similar cargo shipment mission during a failed launch.
By Alex Lemieux
Photo by NASA – Creativecommons Flickr License