Cargo ship crashes on way to ISS

Cargo ship crashes on way to ISS

An unmanned spacecraft carrying supplies for astronauts on the international space station crashed today after a disastrous launch. 

A Progress spacecraft in orbit (NASA)
A Progress spacecraft in orbit (NASA)

The Progress M-12M freighter plunged to Earth in eastern Russia after a rocket engine shut down too soon and its third stage failed to separate. It hit the ground and exploded, reportedly shaking windows 100 km away.

The craft was carrying three tons of food, water and other essentials for astronauts aboard the orbiting outpost. Russian officials called up the space station’s six crew to tell them of the failure.

NASA say the astronauts have enough food, water and oxygen to last them for several months. But the Progress – the 44th launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan – would also have been used to lift the station in its orbit if necessary.

The failure, five minutes 20 seconds after lift-off, is the first in Russia’s many years of launching Progress since 1978. It highlights the risks that NASA faces now that it has retired the space shuttle and relies on Russia to launch missions into orbit.

The next US spacecraft, whether built by NASA or a private enterprise, will not be ready to launch on missions for many months at least, if not years. Astronauts going to the space station now have to be launched by Russian rocket but in a separate craft called a Soyuz.

One senior NASA space scientist told Skymania News: “Thank goodness this failed Russian rocket was launching an unmanned ship and not a Soyuz full of astronauts.”

NASA’s International Space Station manager Mike Suffredini told a news conference tonight that the Progress craft shut down an engine before the third stage was ignited due to an anomaly.

He warned that the accident might have implications for the next crewed Soyuz launch, scheduled for September 22 from Kazakhstan, as they share similar rocket booster designs.

Suffredini said the space station could go several months without a resupply vehicle if necessary. Another Progress that was due to launch in late October could be brought forward and a Soyuz “lifeboat” currently attached to the space station could bring three of the six astronauts home.

A European robotic supply ship, its third Automated Transfer Venicle (ATV) called Edoardo Amaldi, is not due to launch to the space station from Kourou, French Guiana, until March. But Suffredini said the station had supplies that could see astronauts through to then.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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