This week, there was a system failure on a spacecraft (Progress 59) that was being sent to resupply the astronauts currently living on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA and Roscosmos sent the craft carrying more than 6,000 pounds of supplies and scientific experiments, and all went according to plan during the launch; however, the craft is currently spinning out of control as it tumbles about in orbit.
Note: This is the resupply craft for the ISS, not the ISS itself or any manned vessel. According to the most recent NASA announcement, everyone on the ISS is safe and not in any danger.
In the most recent updates, experts familiar with the project assert that there will be no rendezvous with the ISS. Unfortunately, all attempts to make contact with Progress 59 have failed. Igor Komarov, head of Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, told LifeNews that, “A safe docking with the ISS is not possible. We are working out different options for a water landing.”
Though the Russian flight controllers had (and continue to have) a chance to make contact with the capsule every 90 minutes as it passes overhead, NASA announced that such attempts have not been fruitful and docking has been called off for the Progress 59 spacecraft.
In other words, the flight team is no longer trying to gain control of the spacecraft for an ISS rendezvous, but mitigate the damage it may cause as it falls to Earth. If they are able to contact Progress 59, they may be able to move it to a higher orbit and ensure a water-landing (a nice way of saying “make sure that it crashes into the ocean”). But even if contact is not established, the actual danger is amazingly minuscule. First, a great majority of the craft will burn up in our atmosphere. Second, most of our planet is covered in water. Two thirds of the Earth’s surface is oceans and other waterways. Ultimately, only 3% of the land is heavily populated.
When you couple the small size of the craft (after incineration) with the low population density, the chances of Progress 59 causing damage are slim.
— Intl. Space Station (@Space_Station) April 29, 2015
The spacecraft is currently orbiting around 160 miles (257 km) above the Earth and travelling at more than 16,000 miles per hour (25,700 kmh). At this speed and altitude, it will take about a week for the craft to fall to Earth. Some satellites might need to take evasive actions; however, we know where the craft is and can anticipate its trajectory, so this should not pose a problem.
NASA reports that the supplies included, “1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of spare parts, supplies, and scientific experiment hardware.” Of course, missing the necessary oxygen seems a little worrisome, but we don’t keep our astronauts on a tight leash in this regard. Rather, necessary materials (like oxygen, food, and water) are kept in excess in case of unforeseen events (like this one).
If it is lost, this will mark the second mission failure in 6 months. Yet, in times like these, the following is obligatory: Rocket science is hard. Successful missions require absolutely flawless work from engineers, programmers, and a host of other experts. Even then, there are always unforeseen problems that could occur, and frankly, the number of times that things go (and have gone) right far, far outweigh the number of times there have been problems.