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Russian Progress M-27M spacecraft falling back to Earth, failed to reach station

Still frame from a video taken by the Progress M-27M spacecraft revealing it tumbling out of control above the Earth. (NASA TV)
April 29, 2015 — An unmanned Russian cargo spacecraft has failed on its mission to deliver thousands of pounds of supplies for the crew of the International Space Station.

All attempts at docking the Progress M-27M spacecraft to the orbiting laboratory were called off on Wednesday (April 29), just a day after the cargo freighter was launched.

"Roscosmos announced the Progress will not be docking and will reenter the Earth's atmosphere here some days in the future to be determined," NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the Associated Press from onboard the outpost. "This Progress is not coming to the space station."

NASA and Russian space agency officials confirmed that the rendezvous and docking had been cancelled.

"Research and investigation in the flight control center has proved any further docking or rendezvous with the space station is impossible," Alexander Ivanov, first deputy head of Roscosmos, told reporters Wednesday. "We've decided to begin necessary procedures to de-orbit the spacecraft."

Current estimates place the reentry between May 5 and 7, according to Roscosmos, though that may change.

Progress M-27M launches atop a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on April 28, 2015. (RSC Energia)
Progress M-27M lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday at 3:09 a.m. EDT (0709 GMT; 1:09 p.m. local). The launch proceeded without any issue, Ivanov said.

"The launch went smoothly [and] the spacecraft separated from the rocket. We found out however, that we lost the telemetry information from the spacecraft," he explained.

Russian flight controllers reported that the Progress had deployed its solar panels but were unable to confirm if it had extended its navigational antennas or pressurized its propulsion system to perform the thruster burns needed to rendezvous with the space station.

Video taken onboard the Progress later revealed the craft was tumbling out of control.

"The spacecraft is spinning in orbit at a high velocity, with a full revolution every 4 or 5 seconds," said Ivanov.

Click here to enlarge and watch in a pop-up window. (NASA TV)
The Progress had originally been launched on a fast track path to the station with an autonomous docking expected six hours after departing Earth. Soon after discovering the problems with the craft, flight controllers reverted to a two-day rendezvous plan to allow more time to troubleshoot.

Limited by the need for the Progress to be in line of sight with ground stations to communicate, the flight team had to wait until Tuesday evening before attempting to regain control of the wayward craft. Communication with the craft however, was not possible.

"Flight controllers are continuing to assess the vehicle and what the plan going forward will be," NASA stated after the docking had been canceled.

Progress M-27M was launched with more than three tons of food, fuel and supplies for the station's six-person crew, including 1,940 pounds (880 kilograms) of propellant, 110 lbs (50 kg.) of oxygen, 926 lbs (420 kg) of water and 3,128 lbs (1,420 kg) of spare parts and experiment hardware.

"I know what was manifested for the U.S. segment, which was a lot of clothing for [future station crewmembers] Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui [and] some EVA hardware," Kelly said.

Engineers ready the Progress M-27M spacecraft for launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (RSC Energia)
The Progress also had a small selection of fresh foods, as requested by the station crew. Apples, oranges, grapefruit, onion, and garlic were on board the vehicle, as was ham, barbecue sauce and "Caucasian snacks," according to the head of the division of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Medical-Biological Problems that oversees the food's provision.

The station currently has sufficient supplies to support the crew through August. A NASA-contracted SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to launch supplies in June and a Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) is slated for August.

The next Russian Progress launch was also scheduled for August, though that may now change.

"We have a lot of redundancy onboard the space station," Kelly said. "The program plans for these kind of things."

M-27M is only the second out of 59 Progress vehicles to launch toward the International Space Station and fail. The first, Progress M-12M in 2011, was lost in a launch failure.

Overall, more than 140 Progress craft have been launched since January 1978.

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