Progress unmanned cargo ships have been the key to long-term human spaceflight since they were first launched back in 1978 to the Soviet space station Salyut 6. They’ve been incredibly reliable over the years, which is why it’s so alarming that one is tumbling out of control on its way to the ISS.
I mean, a spacecraft tumbling out of control is alarming no matter what, but Progress is a known an proven platform — this isn’t some experimental craft failing, this is part of our established orbital infrastructure.
The Progress was launched into orbit earlier today, April 28, and problems were first noticed with Progress 59 right after it separated from its Soyuz launch vehicle. The good news is that because it happened so early, it’s not yet that close to the Space Station; the bad news is that this is still a craft with about three tons of supplies, food, and fuel tumbling out of control.
The Progress is a modification of the Soyuz spacecraft; it shares the Soyuz’ basic 3-module design and has essentially the same engine/service module, but instead of a middle crew return capsule, the Progress has a fuel-storage and transfer system, and the forward spherical orbital module on a manned Soyuz is used on a Progress as a cargo container.
The camera feed showing the spin is from the Progress’ forward docking camera, and shows a pretty quick spin. Based on where the camera is mounted, the spin appears to be mostly a yaw rotational motion, which could mean a stuck yaw orientation thruster (there’s groups of these thrusters near the middle of the craft and on the aft skirt) or possibly confused position sensors that are mistakenly firing one or more thrusters.
Back in 2012, Progress 47 had issues with its automatic rendezvous and docking systems, but those were resolved and the craft was able to dock. Progress 59’s situation seems much worse. Ground controls have not gotten confirmation of the ship’s navigational antenna deploying, or for pressurization of the propulsion system. Could a leak of pressurizing gas (nitrogen, I think?) be what’s causing the spin? Ground control will attempt to regain control of the Progress when it passes back over Russia tonight.
Interestingly, a sort of similar situation in 1966 may have been what gave Neil Armstrong the nod to be the first man to walk on the moon. The mission was Gemini 8, and Armstrong and astronaut David Scott were practicing rendezvous and docking maneuvers with an unmanned target called Agena. Just after one of the dockings, one of the Gemini’s orientation thrusters became stuck open, and propelled the spacecraft into a rapid spin.
The spin rapidly sped up to one revolution per second, and it was only the quick thinking and skill of Armstrong that saved the astronauts. He disabled the Gemini’s attitude thrusters and stopped the spin using the thrusters designed for re-entry back to earth. It was successful, but used 75% of the return fuel, forcing them to re-enter immediately.
Of course, there’s no people aboard the progress, so the stakes aren’t as high. Still, if they can’t get control of the craft enough to at least make a controlled re-entry, there will be a pretty big, uncontrolled, spinning object hurtling around in orbit, and that’s never a good thing.