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Progress Regressed

The disintegration of a space vehicle during re-entry depends on a number of imponderables. The area where the surviving remnants of the space vehicle will ultimately fall, continues to remain uncertain.

Issue: 05-2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By NASA

While the world was grappling with a natural disaster that struck Nepal on April 25 this year, there came another piece of disconcerting revelation from the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) that Progress M-27M unmanned space vehicle launched by Russia from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 13:39 Indian Standard Time on Tuesday, April 28, had gone awry. Soon after the launch, the space vehicle is reported to have developed a technical snag that resulted in the vehicle going into an uncontrolled spin rotating a full 360 degrees every five seconds. It is understood that as some rockets failed to fire at the time they should have, the unmanned space vehicle ended up in an incorrect orbit. The schedule of the space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on April 30, 2015, could not thus be achieved.

It appears that two of the antennas also failed to deploy properly and as a result of which some telemetry problems were encountered by the control station on the ground. As a consequence, communication with the space vehicle was lost soon after the launch. The Ground Control also did not receive any confirmation about whether or not the propulsion unit needed for docking had been pressurised. Officials of the Russian space agency are still not quite sure as to what precisely went wrong. All attempts to re-establish communication with the spacecraft thereafter or to regain control have been unsuccessful.

Supply Mission into Space

As per NASA, the Progress unmanned space vehicle is one of the several such platforms available for logistic support to the ISS. In this case the Progress spacecraft was carrying 1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of spare parts, supplies and scientific experiment hardware for the ISS which is manned by a six-member international team of astronauts who were waiting anxiously for replenishments. Also carried on board was the Soviet Victory Banner that had been hoisted atop the Reichstag building in Berlin on May 1, 1945. The ISS crew wanted to celebrate in May 2015, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Both the Russian space agency and NASA have confirmed that the six-member crew on board the orbiting space station have adequate reserves of supplies on board to last well beyond the next planned resupply flight. Thus the crew on board the ISS does not face any danger on this account. In any case, the next logistic support flight to the ISS is planned on June 19 this year by the partially reusable Dragon cargo ship manufactured by a California-based space transportation company SpaceX. The Russian space agency is also working on sending its new Progress space vehicle with supplies to the ISS in the period July to September this year. However what the space agencies have lost in the latest mission that failed is $63.34 million (2.6 billion roubles) spent over the launch of Progress unmanned space vehicle that has in the final analysis, proved to be an exercise in futility.

As per the standard operating procedure, after docking with the ISS, the stores are unloaded. Thereafter the spacecraft is jettisoned and is guided through to a controlled re-entry over the South Pacific Ocean. The space vehicle is expected to burn out during re-entry into the atmosphere. However, some of the parts of the space vehicle that do not burn out, fall in the South Pacific Ocean. This procedure eliminates the possibility of the un-burnt remnants of the space vehicle falling on land and endangering human habitation. The probability of parts of the space vehicle falling on land is low as roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water and populated or built-up urban areas comprise less than five per cent of the actual land area.

India created history of sorts with the success in the first interplanetary probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan

The seven-metre-long unmanned space vehicle Progress had reached an altitude of 256 kilometres above the surface of the Earth and had attained a speed of more than 16,000 miles per hour. However, as per an official of the Russian space agency, after failing to dock with the ISS, the unmanned space vehicle is now headed back towards the Earth. Scientists associated with the programme are unable to predict with any degree of precision as to when it will reach the Earth. Estimates are that the unmanned space vehicle could remain in orbit for more than a week, possibly up to ten days before impacting the surface of the Earth. In the instant case, as the scientist and engineers do not appear to be in a position to guarantee controlled entry of the space vehicle over the South Pacific, there is a serious possibility of the parts of the vehicle that survive re-entry falling on land with obvious consequences for human lives. The Russian space agency however is exploring options to ensure that the unburnt parts fall in the ocean and not on land. As per officials of the European Space Agency, it is impossible to predict exactly how a tumbling spacecraft will break up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The disintegration of a space vehicle during re-entry depends on a number of imponderables. The area where the surviving remnants of the space vehicle will ultimately fall therefore continues to remain somewhat uncertain.

Successes and Failures in Space Exploration

Russia as part of the Soviet Union created history when it became the first nation to launch the Sputnik in 1957, a satellite to orbit the Earth. Four years later on April 12, 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, a Soviet military pilot and a cosmonaut, became first human to journey into outer space when aboard the Vostok spacecraft, he orbited the Earth successfully. But Russia has had its share of failures too. Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov, a Soviet test pilot, aerospace engineer and a cosmonaut was killed on April 24, 1967, when the space capsule Soyuz 1 crashed after re-entry as the parachute failed to deploy. In 1971, Soviet cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov were killed while returning to Earth from the Salyut 1 space station in their Soyuz 1 craft. Investigations revealed that the three cosmonauts died due to failure of pressurisation in the space capsule that exposed them to a vacuum.

More recently, in August 2011, a Russian supply ship Progress M-12M carrying several tonnes of cargo for the ISS failed to reach the correct orbit after blast-off and is believed to have crashed in Eastern Siberia. The recent loss of the Russian Progress unmanned space vehicle that has a fairly respectable record of reliability, would be a setback for the nation’s space programme that has been recently hit by a series of minor mishaps.

On the other side of the globe, while NASA has recorded major successes in its space programme, it has also had to cope with failures. The first major disaster to strike after a series of successes was when on January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. This accident at launch had attracted greater attention as for the first time, a lady teacher Christa McAuliffe who was on board and headed to space, was to conduct lessons from space. Millions of school-children were severely disappointed.

Seventeen years after the Challenger tragedy, the US shuttle programme suffered another loss when space shuttle Columbia that had been launched on January 16, 2003, disintegrated on its return flight to the Earth on February 1, 2003. Seven astronauts on board, including Indian American Kalpana Chawla, were killed. Chawla was a space engineer and this was her second voyage into space. But perhaps the most traumatic episode in the history of US space programme was the tragic death of three astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967 in a fire in the command module of Apollo 1 during a ground test. India’s space programme in comparison with those of the leading space-faring nations has been somewhat modest. India is yet to enter the domain of manned space exploration though there are plans to foray into this area in not too distant a future. Meanwhile, India created history of sorts with the success in the very first attempt of the first ever interplanetary probe undertaken by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) by way of the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan. No other country has been able to achieve this feat in the very first attempt.