Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are in a bind today. The Russian cargo capsule carrying supplies is spinning out of control in a lower orbit.
The issue with Progress (the supply capsule) is two of its five antennas have not unfolded. This malfunction has prevented Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) from taking control of the module.
With it out of control and Roscosmos lacking a clean link to the capsule, Progress is stuck in a lower orbit and could be pulled back down into Earth’s atmosphere in the next few days.
Below is a video of the cargo capsule spinning.
No Risk to the ISS
Though there’s no control over the spinning capsule, it poses no danger to the crew on the ISS. Worst case scenario is Progress burns up in the atmosphere in the coming days.
Progress was loaded out with just over 6000 pounds of supplies and equipment. Its manifest included 926 pounds of water, 110 pounds of oxygen, 1,940 pounds of propellant and 3,128 pounds of dry cargo including clothes and food for the station crew.
While that sounds like much-needed supplies, the ISS is stocked for these types of mission failures.
Supply Reserves on ISS
Currently, the space station has at least four months of food in reserve. So, even if the SpaceX supply mission (June) runs into issues, the crew is fine until the next Japanese mission, scheduled for August.
Granted, NASA doesn’t want to push the envelope, so let’s hope SpaceX docks without any issues. Back during the Space Shuttle groundings in response to the Columbia disaster, the crew had to ration food.
A delayed resupply capsule finally arrived with the astronauts having just weeks of food left. Had they run out, the crew would have been forced to abandon the ISS.
Water and oxygen are less of a concern. The crew would run out of food way before oxygen and water became an issue. Water and oxygen are both recycled aboard the space station, due to the expense of hauling up the bulky items.
ISS’s water system recycles everything from the water vapor the crew exhales to sweat and even their urine. If the system didn’t exists, over 60,000 pounds would have to be packed in cargo capsules each year. Not exactly cost-effective.
The reason Progress had some onboard was due to the small amounts of water lost during purification, and vapor that escapes when airlocks are opened.
Pressure Builds on SpaceX
Even with reserves on the ISS, the pressure is on for SpaceX to deliver. NASA contracts with the company and Orbital Sciences for resupply missions. Missions from Orbital Sciences are on hold while it investigates the launchpad explosion last October.
With doubt creeping higher Roscosmos will be able to regain control of Progress, SpaceX will be expected to deliver. The fallback will be the Japanese mission in August.
If both fail, the station would face evacuation. It would be a heavy blow to the space program and the multiple experiments ongoing. The year-long mission in space is of special interest as NASA and private companies look towards deep-space travel.