Progress M-27M latest woe for Russian Space Program
When the Progress M-27M/59P cargo vessel launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz 2-1a booster on Tuesday, April 28, at 3:09 a.m. EDT (1:09 ALMT, 07:09 GMT), it appeared that it would be another routine flight of the venerable craft. However, anyone who follows spaceflight knows that missions into the void above our world are anything but routine. The flight of the automated cargo vessel served to drive this point home.
Upon reaching orbit, it became clear that things had gone very wrong. Video appeared later in the day showing the spacecraft tumbling out of control. This latest incident comes at a time when the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) has encountered several setbacks.
As noted on SpaceFlight Insider earlier this week, things within Roscosmos have not been going very well recently. Besides the loss of a Russian military rocket, delays to key efforts that the nation is trying to accomplish have either been scaled back or postponed. Hot on the heels of these events comes the failed flight of the Progress M-27M. These events serve to underscore that rhetoric issued by Russian representatives about the post-shuttle era being the “Soyuz Epoch ” and that the United States could use “trampolines ” to send astronauts to orbit is just that – rhetoric.
The head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, announced today that the $51 million (2.6 billion rubles, if including the cost of the Soyuz booster) spacecraft was lost. This marks the second of the spacecraft to be lost in less than four years. These craft, along with others from the United States, Japan, and Europe, are used to keep the International Space Station (ISS) stocked with supplies as well as to bring new experiments up to the orbiting lab.
Progress M-27M was carrying nearly three tons of supplies when it encountered a series of technical problems that saw the vessel tumbling out of control, and it is now falling back to Earth. NASA described the situation in a release on the failure as follows:
“… an unspecified problem prevented Russian flight controllers from determining whether navigational antennas had deployed and whether fuel system manifolds had pressurized as planned.”
When Roscosmos heads discussed the subject earlier today, they were a little abstract on the loss of the craft and cargo, mentioning instead that the craft was unable to accomplish its primary objective.
“Because of this, the craft’s continued flight and its docking with the ISS is not possible,” Komarov said.
His comments were followed up with a statement by Roscosmos’ deputy head, Alexander Ivanov, who noted that the next two Progress launches have now been pushed back to the third and fourth quarter of this year.
Video courtesy of RT Ruptly TV
Russia’s current status marks a drastic change from the comments that the country has made about its space capabilities in the past few years. Just days after the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ wheels stopped for the final time, after the successful conclusion of mission STS-135, in 2011, Russian officials, rather than show support for their “partner” on the ISS program, the United States, crowed about how this new age was one belonging to Russian-produced Soyuz spacecraft. Shortly after making these statements, the Progress M-12M cargo vessel failed to reach orbit with its precious cargo slamming into the vast plains of Kazakhstan.
Then came the loss of three GLONASS navigational satellites, which were doomed due to angular velocity sensors being installed upside-down. The video of the Proton Briz-M launch vehicle spiraling through the air before plummeting back to Earth highlighted the fact that even experienced space agencies encounter issues. A review of the more severe space accidents that Russia has endured since the close of NASA’s Shuttle program paints a very different picture than the one that Russian space officials might have liked:
Aug. 17, 2011: Proton-M/Briz-M — Loss of the $275 million Express AM4 spacecraft shortly after the rocket lifted off from Baikonur
Aug. 24, 2011: Soyuz-U — Progress M-12M cargo resupply vessel, bound for the ISS, was lost approximately five-and-a-half minutes into the mission due to an issue with the turbo-pump.
Dec. 23, 2011: Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat — Meridian 5 military communications satellite lost after rocket’s third stage failed approximately seven minutes into the flight.
Aug. 6, 2012: Proton-M/Briz-M — Loss of Ekspress MD2 and Telcom 3 satellites after the Briz-M third stage failure after only firing a few seconds into its third planned burn.
July 2, 2013: Proton-M/DM-03 — Loss of three Uragan-M navigation satellites due to the rocket’s first stage encountering a control failure, as the launch vehicle’s angular velocity sensors were installed backwards.
May 15, 2014: Proton-M/Briz-M — A little more than nine minutes into the flight, the vernier engine located in the Proton’s third stage failed, likely due to a turbo-pump pipe leak.
Apr. 28, 2015: Soyuz 2-1a — After being placed successfully into orbit by its Soyuz launch vehicle, the Progress M-27M spacecraft begins tumbling wildly out of control. Russian officials announce a day later that the spacecraft is not recoverable.
Video courtesy of NASA
The Expedition 43 crew currently on board the ISS are safe, but the supplies that were on board Progress are lost. This is not a concern at present as the station is normally stocked with more than enough supplies to sustain them until the next cargo vessel, a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-7 mission, can be launched. That flight is currently scheduled to take place no earlier than June 19 of this year.
According to NASA, when Russian flight controllers received no confirmation that Progress’ antennas had deployed after the craft had reached orbit, they reverted to a backup flight plan of two days (as opposed to six hours) this extended the flight from four to 34 orbits. This, however, was still not enough to correct the problems that the vessel had encountered.
All attempts to get the craft under control were unsuccessful, with the flight team unable to confirm the status of Progress’ flight systems. Although it appears that telemetry was recoverable from some systems, the controllers were unable to gain this critical information from all of the spacecraft’s systems.
For their part, NASA astronauts displayed more grace than Russian officials have in the past.
“We have a lot of redundancy on board the International Space Station, the program plans for these kind of things to happen, they are very unfortunate when they do, but we do have other supplies on board and one of the great things about this international partnership is we do have other vehicles that can resupply the space station,” said Expedition 43 crew member and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. “When we had the Columbia accident, we were fortunate to have the Soyuz to be able to keep the space station manned.”
Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are conducting a one-year stint on board the ISS as part of an effort to gain more data about long duration stay in the microgravity environment.
Luckily, nothing critical was on board Progress M-27M. The spacecraft was filled with more than three tons of food, fuel, and crew supplies. This included 1,940 pounds of fuel, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of parts, experiments and other supplies.
“We have other vehicles, SpaceX, HTV, and, hopefully, Orbital [ATK] soon that can resupply us, so we should be okay,” Kelly added.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.