Video: Soyuz grounded:  No way to ISS

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updated 8/29/2011 12:41:14 PM ET 2011-08-29T16:41:14

The International Space Station may have to start operating without a crew in November if Russian engineers don't figure out soon what caused a recent rocket failure, NASA officials announced Monday.

The unmanned Russian cargo ship Progress 44 crashed just after its Aug. 24 launch to deliver 2.9 tons of supplies to the orbiting lab. The failure was caused by a problem with the Progress' Soyuz rocket, which is similar to the one Russia uses to launch its crew-carrying vehicle — also called Soyuz.

Currently, six astronauts reside on the space station. They shouldn't be unduly affected by the Progress crash, NASA officials said, because they have enough supplies to last a while on orbit.

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But three of these astronauts are due to return to Earth next month, and the rest are scheduled to come back in mid-November. At the moment, the Soyuz is the only way to get astronauts to and from the station. So if the rocket anomaly isn't identified and fixed soon, a fresh crew won't be able to reach the orbiting lab before the last three spacefliers head for home. [Photos: Building the International Space Station]

Unmanned for the first time in a decade?
That situation would leave the $100 billion orbiting lab unmanned for the first time since 2001. Still, it wouldn't be a disaster, according to NASA officials.

"We know how to do this," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters. "Assuming the systems keep operating, like I've said, we can command the vehicle from the ground and operate it fine, and remain on orbit indefinitely."

NASA would of course prefer to keep some crew aboard the orbiting lab, Suffredini added. Leaving the station unmanned would cut back significantly on the scientific research being done 240 miles (386 kilometers) above Earth. In the wake of the space shuttle's retirement last month, NASA has repeatedly stressed the importance of that research, and the scientific potential of the station.

But the timing just might not work out. Two Soyuz spacecraft are currently docked to the station to take its six astronauts home. The vehicles are only rated to spend about 200 days in space, so they'll have to depart soon. [How Russia's Progress Spaceships Work (Infographic)]

Light at the landing site
Lighting conditions at the Soyuz's Kazakhstan landing site are also an issue. NASA and the Russian space agency mandate that landings must occur at least one hour after dawn and one hour before dusk, to facilitate better search-and-rescue operations should any be required.

The lighting window closes for about five weeks on Sept. 19 for the first crew and around Nov. 19 for the second. Waiting for a new window to open would stretch the Soyuz spacecraft beyond their 200-day ratings in both cases, Suffredini said.

So all six astronauts on the space station will almost certainly have left the orbiting lab by mid-November. Russian engineers are working hard to give crewed Soyuz launches the best chance to meet that deadline; the next one is slated to blast off Sept. 21, but that's almost certainly not going to happen, Suffredini said.

Russia has formed a commission to determine the cause of the Progress crash, and to figure out how to fix it. But NASA says it won't rush anything, as astronaut safety is its chief priority.

NASA
Sunlight glints off the International Space Station with the blue limb of Earth providing a dramatic backdrop in this photo taken by an astronaut on the shuttle Endeavour just before it docked after midnight on Feb. 10, 2010 during the STS-130 mission.

"We'll just see how it plays out," Suffredini said.

NASA won't put any crews on a Soyuz until the rocket has had several successful unmanned launches, he added. Those could happen relatively soon. Russia plans to use Soyuz boosters to launch a commercial payload and another Progress supply ship by late October.

The Progress crash marked the latest in a string of Russian launch failures over the last 10 months. This series of mishaps has caused some concern among U.S. lawmakers and experts, since NASA will rely on Russia to loft its astronauts to orbit until private American crew-carrying spaceships come online. That could start happening by 2015, officials have said.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter:@michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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