The U.S. Air Force is keeping close tabs on Russia's tumbling, out-of-control space capsule as it comes closer to re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The robotic Progress spacecraft, which was launched earlier this week with supplies for the International Space Station, is expected to plunge from orbit sometime between May 7 and 11, according to projections from the European Space Agency.
The capsule — and the upper-stage rocket that was used to boost it into orbit — are circling the world about 125 miles (201 kilometers) lower than the space station. The Air Force says 44 pieces of debris also are orbiting in the same vicinity. An explosion or collision involving the capsule or the rocket could have resulted in the multiple pieces of junk. ESA said it couldn't exclude the possibility that parts of the Progress craft's structure would survive re-entry and reach Earth's surface.
Six astronauts live at the space station. Three of them are due to return to Earth next month, and their three replacements are to be launched from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan using a different type of Soyuz rocket on May 26. Russia's Interfax news service quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that an investigation into the Progress failure was under way — and that the situation would not affect next month's crew launch.
The next cargo delivery is scheduled to arrive at the station in June, aboard a commercial SpaceX Dragon capsule. NASA and the Russians say the station's crew members have more than enough supplies to tide them over until then.