An unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying tons of supplies for astronauts on the International Space Station crashed back to Earth Wednesday when its rocket suffered a major malfunction, NASA officials say.
The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.
"Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly," NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. "The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation."
Pieces of it fell in Siberia amid a thunderous explosion, officials said. A brief statement from Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, did not specify whether the Progress supply ship that was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan had been lost.
But the state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Alexander Borisov, head of a the Choisky region in Russia's Altai province, as saying pieces of the craft fell in his area some 900 miles northeast of the launch site.
"The explosion was so strong that for 100 kilometers (60 miles) glass almost flew out of the windows," he was quoted as saying. Borisov said there were no immediate reports of casualties.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg, who spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer, said Borisov described the region as an inhabited agricultural (orchard) area, but since it's remote, and night had fallen, he had no information on damage or casualties. He didn't expect to get that information until tomorrow.
Oberg said this region has experienced the falls of Russian rocket fragments for decades and is very sensitive to chemical pollution and other health hazards. Unburned propellant in the third stage, and a ton of hypergolic propellant in the cargo ship, could indeed make a respectable explosion, either on impact or after being ignited high in the air, he said.
Other fallen Russian rockets have made impressive craters when they've fallen, but so far, nobody is known to have been hurt or killed in this incident.
According to Oberg, one source said that data in the Russian Federation rocket-space branch RF shows the divergence of space truck from the orbit occurred because it did not have time to collect the necessary orbital speed.
The source stressed that the cargo ship at 325 seconds was not separated from the third step of carrier rocket "Soyuz." After this, having partially burnt in the dense layers of the atmosphere, the unit fell in the Altai mountains.
Russia's lost cargo ship
A video of the Progress cargo ship launch shows the vehicle soaring into a clear blue sky. It is the second launch failure within a week for Russia's space program, which typically launches Soyuz rockets successfully.
Suffredini said this is the first failure of a Soyuz rocket and Progress vehicle in the more than 10 years Russia has been launching them to the International Space Station.
Progress 44 was packed with about 2.9 tons of food, fuel and supplies for the space station, which is currently home to six astronauts representing the United States, Russia and Japan. None of the cargo items lost is irreplaceable and the station's current crew is at no risk of running out of supplies, Suffredini said.
"We can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary," Suffredini said, adding that the orbiting lab is stocked up to last through March 2012, when a European cargo ship is expected to arrive.
The space station is currently stocked by Russia's Progress vehicle and robot cargo ships built by the European and Japanese space agencies.
Investigation under way
However, how today's Soyuz rocket failure affects plans for four more launches later this year to ferry new crews and cargo shipments to the space station remains to be seen. Two Soyuz crew launches and two Progress deliveries were on the launch schedule before today's incident.
A crew-carrying version of the Soyuz rocket, called the Soyuz FG, was due to launch a Soyuz capsule carrying three astronauts to the space station on Sept. 22. But that Soyuz FG rocket shares many similarities with the Soyuz U version that failed today, so Russian space officials must find the cause of the current failure before any more Soyuz capsules or Progress vehicles can fly.
"Obviously this has implications to the vehicle on orbit and the crew as well," Suffredini said, adding that he's confident Russian space officials will identify the cause.
NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in July and currently relies solely on Russia to ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. The U.S. space agency also plans to use American-built cargo and crew-carrying vehicles once they become available in the next few years.
The six-man crew on the station today arrived in teams of three on a staggered schedule. One of those teams will have to return to Earth in October on their Soyuz capsule, so NASA and its space station partners will have to decide by then whether to partially evacuate the orbiting lab and leave it staffed with a three-person crew until normal launches resume, Suffredini said.
Meanwhile, Maxim Matuchen, head of the Russian Mission Control Center, radioed the space station to relay news of the Progress 44 launch failure to the crew.
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"This is it for the moment, we'll try to figure out what has happened and what the cause was. I just wanted to keep you informed," Matuchen said, according to a NASA translation.
"Thank you for letting us know so quickly," the station's Russian commander Andrey Borisenko radioed back. "Thank you from the entire crew."
A reliable spacecraft
Russia's Progress spacecraft and Soyuz rockets have a long track record of reliability. They have been hauling cargo to the International Space Station since the first crew took up residence in 2001.
The latest Progress vehicle to depart the space station undocked from the orbiting lab early Tuesday to make room for the new Progress 44 replacement.
The Progress cargo ships resemble the country's three-module Soyuz capsules that carry cosmonauts and astronauts into orbit. However, Progress vehicles carry a fuel pod in place of a crew module in order to replenish the space station's supplies.
But it was the similarities that Suffredini said first came to his mind after hearing of the launch failure.
"I know the Progress and Soyuz both use the same booster, and so immediately started worrying about how quick we were going to work this out," he said.
This is the second Russian spacecraft to be lost during launch in six days.
On Aug. 18, the $300 million Russian communications satellites Express AM4 failed to reach the proper orbit after it blasted off atop a Proton rocket, a different model than the booster carrying Progress 44. That satellite was later found drifting in the wrong orbit, according to Russian space officials.
Suffredini said he is not aware of any similarities between the upper rocket stage that failed during the Proton launch and today's Soyuz booster failure. But he is confident that the cause will be identified.
"I was disappointed that we lost the spacecraft, but frankly, I think we'll sort this one out and we'll get to flying again," Suffredini said. "And we'll learn from it and move on."
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