All eyes on Progress: Russian spacecraft to deliver supplies to ISS
With the complete loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket with its payload of a Dragon spacecraft, the attention of the international spaceflight community is now focused on the launch of Russian Progress M-28M cargo vessel. Lift-off is currently scheduled for July 3 at 12:55 a.m. EDT (07:55 a.m. Moscow time; 10:55 a.m. local time; 04:55 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome located in Kazakhstan.
With the events of this past weekend, the situation in terms of ferrying experiments, crew supplies, and cargo to the International Space Station has now entered into a troubling period.
Of the four current spacecraft that are used to resupply the Space Station, SpaceX’s Dragon disintegrated along with the Falcon 9 rocket that had exploded on Sunday, June 28. Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo vessel was lost in an explosion on October 28, 2014, putting the company’s next launches on hold.
The Russian space industry has also suffered from a series of major setbacks. On April 28, the Progress M-27M cargo craft was launched to rendezvous with the ISS, but it was lost when the rocket’s upper stage malfunctioned toward the end of its burn before separation of the spacecraft, sending it spinning out of control; the spacecraft re-entered and disintegrated in the atmosphere on May 8. Russia received another blow less than three weeks later, on May 16, when a Proton-M launch vehicle exploded minutes after the launch, failing to deliver a Mexican communications satellite to orbit.
The investigation into these recent failures has forced Russia to re-schedule subsequent launches. The launch of Progress M-28M was initially planned for Aug. 6. However, due to the loss of the previous cargo craft, the date was moved in order to quickly replace the lost supplies. Now, a Soyuz-U rocket is being readied in a typical pre-flight preparation regime to fly with the next Progress.
The spacecraft has been fueled with propellant, components, and compressed gasses and has been delivered to the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility for final processing operations, including air tightness tests. Refueling tanks that hold propellant for transfer to the ISS were filled as well.
Two helium spheres were charged to provide tank pressurization in flight and the Progress was loaded with oxygen and nitrogen gasses to repressurize the Station’s atmosphere.
The final inspection of the spacecraft took place on Friday, June 26, as well as the removal of the last protective covers from the docking system, solar arrays, and communication antennas of the Progress.
On Monday, June 29, the orbital module of the Soyuz-U, containing Progress M-28M, was transported from the spacecraft processing facility for the general integration with the launch vehicle. The next day, the spacecraft was integrated with the rocket in the processing facility. A decision was also made to roll out the Soyuz-U with the Progress cargo craft to the launch pad. The rocket components arrived at Baikonur earlier in the year and went through acceptance testing.
The Progress cargo module is similar in construction to the crewed Soyuz spacecraft’s orbital module. The spacecraft docks automatically to the space station and there is also a backup remote control docking system.
Progress is composed of three components: the Cargo Module, Refueling Module, and Instrument-Service Module.
The Cargo Module carries pressurized cargo which the crew transfers to the station through the docking hatch. After the module is unloaded, trash, unwanted equipment, and wastewater can be loaded into the Progress for disposal when the spacecraft leaves the Station.
There are several distinct dissimilarities between Progress and Dragon, including the fact that Dragon does not dock with the Station, but is instead captured by the orbiting lab’s robotic arm and berthed to the ISS. However, unlike Progress, which burns up upon re-entry, Dragon conducts a splashdown in the Pacific – where it is collected and experiments placed within are returned to awaiting scientists.
NASA has little cargo aboard the Progress spacecraft and hasn’t ordered any additional cargo to be taken to the ISS following Sunday’s failure.
“No, we have not received such requests,” a spokesperson for Russia’s Mission Control Center told Sputnik News.
According to the spokesperson, it would be difficult to add extra cargo to the Progress ship as it could delay the launch. Any addition of cargo would have been part of late-cargo loading on the Progress which is possible until about 24 hours prior to launch.
Rollout to the launch pad at Baikonur’s Site 1/5 is planned to take place on Wednesday, July 1.
The Progress payload includes cargo in the pressurized cargo module and propellant in the refueling module. The spacecraft will deliver more than 3 tons of food, fuel, and supplies to the crew and dock to the Pirs docking compartment after a two-day ride.
Docking is planned for July 5 at 3:13 a.m. EDT (07:13 GMT).
While the Progress is docked to the Station, it uses its propellant and thrusters to perform Station reboost maneuvers. Trash is loaded into the cargo module when the Progress has completed its mission and is ready to leave the Station. Progress vehicles normally remain at the Station for two to three months.
The Soyuz-U is the most flown rocket in the historic Soyuz launcher family. The launch vehicle is currently used to transport Progress spacecraft to the ISS and occasionally to launch military reconnaissance payloads.
The vehicle stands 167 ft. (51.1 m) tall with a main diameter of 9 ft. (2.95 m) and a maximum diameter of 33 ft. (10.3 m). Lift-off mass is about 313 tons. It is capable of delivering payloads of up to 6.9 tons to the low-Earth orbit (LEO).
In April 2015, Soyuz-U was claimed obsolete; its production stopped already and the usage will end when all stored vehicles will be launched, mostly with Progress cargo ships.
The first Soyuz-U flight took place on May 18, 1973, carrying a military surveillance satellite Kosmos 559.
NASA TV coverage of the Progress M-28M launch will begin at 12:30 am EDT.
The next Progress spacecraft is currently scheduled for launch on Sept. 21, 2015. The Progress M-29M vehicle will also be launched by a Soyuz-U rocket from Baikonur. The upcoming mission will be followed by the first flight of the Progress MS spacecraft in late November for a total of five Progress launches this year.
The current ISS Expedition 44 crew consists of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Korniyenko. The Station residents remain in good shape in terms of supplies with adequate levels until at least October even without the upcoming Progress launch.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui are planned to join the current crew in a month. They are scheduled to launch on July 22 in a Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft from Baikonur.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.