Russian officials lost contact with an unmanned spacecraft that went out of control early Tuesday and abandoned efforts to stabilize it after it entered the wrong orbit. Progress M-27M was carrying 2.5 tons of food and supplies to the International Space Station, but didn’t arrive six hours after it launched early Tuesday. Officials say crew members aboard the space station have plenty of food and are in no immediate danger, and the craft will eventually fall back to Earth.
RIA Novosti reports that the ship was insured for 2 billion rubles. The total cost of the failed mission, however, is closer to 5 billion rubles—nearly $100 million. In addition to cargo for the International Space Station, Progress was carrying symbolic gifts: St. George’s ribbons and other trinkets to commemorate 70 years since Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II.
Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force’s space command, tells The Daily Beast the satellite isn’t exactly crashing to Earth.
“It is moving on a very predictable constant orbital trajectory like just about everything else in space. We know exactly where it is and where it’s going.
“It is true that the spacecraft is tumbling, and so far it appears the ground controllers have been unable to get the spacecraft back under control to stop the tumbling. But that’s like being inside one of those astronaut gyroscope trainers while it’s attached to a railroad track. You may be spinning wildly about within the gyro, but the gyro itself is moving along a predictable and fixed path on the railroad track.”
But there is the bigger question of what actually caused the craft to go out of control. Progress vehicles have been the mainstay of cargo resupply to space for decades—if that system has developed a problem or become unreliable, then Weeden says that could be very troubling.
“Although U.S. commercial companies such as SpaceX and OrbitalATK have demonstrated the ability to resupply the ISS, those efforts are not quite fully operational,” he says. “Hopefully, the investigation will show that was just a one-time anomaly and the root cause can be quickly fixed.”