EarthSky News: Doomed Russian Spacecraft about to Fall

Predictions are narrowing for reentry time of Progress 59 supply craft, launched from Kazakhstan on April 28, soon to create a fiery streak in Earth’s sky.

Progress is a series of unmanned cargo craft used to resupply the International Space Station.
Progress is a series of unmanned cargo craft used to resupply the International Space Station.

A unpiloted Russian re-supply ship – carrying 6,000 pounds of food, fuel, and supplies for International Space Station – was declared lost when, shortly after its April 28 launch, it began spinning out of control. This craft will soon reenter Earth’s atmosphere; current predictions suggest reentry on the evening of May 7, according to U.S. clocks (morning of May 8 for Asia). It is likely to produce a bright meteor – or fiery streak – across Earth’s sky. Where will it fall, and who will see it? No one knows for sure, but the reentry predictions are getting narrower. Look below for information on what observers might see when the spacecraft re-enters.

The reentry will not be controlled, which means its exact time and location is unknown. Scientists that predict the reentry of orbital objects like this one – damaged satellites and other space debris – have calculated that the Progress 59 may reenter around May 8. The uncertainty of in some predictions was +/- 24 hours, but this uncertainty is narrowing. Current reentry predictions as of 9:30 a.m. CDT (1430 UTC) on May 7, via Spaceflight101:

USSTRATCOM: May 8, 2015 – 01:36 UTC +/-2 Hours [Issued: May 7 – 13:04]
Spaceflight101: May 8, 2015 – 01:41 UTC +/-4 Hours [Issued: May 7 – 13:10]
Satflare: May 8, 2015 – 06:10 UTC +/-6 Hours [Issued: May 6 – 21:00]
Ted Molczan: May 7, 2015 – 23:33 UTC +/-3 Hours [Issued: May 7 – 12:44]
Aerospace Corp: May 8 – 23:09 UTC +/-18 Hours [Issued: May 5 – 20:38]
Roscosmos: 21:45-03:36 UTC – May 7/8, 2015 [Issued: May 7 – 11:13]

Translate UTC to your local time.

@Marco_Langbroek on Twitter posted an updated map of reentry predictions at 9:30 a.m. CDT (1430 UTC) on May 7:

Progress 59 launch on April 28, via ESA
Progress 59 launch on April 28, via ESA

Because over 70% of the surface of Earth is covered by water, there is a high probability that the Progress 59P, also known as Progress M-27M, will reenter over an ocean. But the spacecraft’s orbital inclination also causes it to pass over land areas, so this may slightly increase the chance of reentry over populated areas. The European Space Agency (ESA), which is in close contact with Russian and U.S. authorities regarding the Progress M-27M / 59P mission situation, said on April 30:

In an uncontrolled reentry, the vessel in principle could reenter over any point of land or sea between approximately 51 deg N and 51 deg S latitudes, corresponding to its current orbit.

… We cannot exclude the chance that some portion of (Progress 59) structure, for example the heavy docking mechanism or tanks and thrusters, could survive reentry to reach the surface.

However, according to ESA, disintegration over the oceans is still the most likely scenario.

Track Progress 59 prior to reentry here.

The Progress 59 spacecraft was launched from Kazakhstan on April 28 and was heading to the International Space Station (ISS) with food, fuel and supplies. An unexpected incident occurred during the spacecraft separation, and video sent back by the spacecraft showed it was spinning out of control.

Russian officials declared on April 29 that they were unable to regain the spacecraft control. It was clear that the doomed spacecraft would return fall back into Earth’s atmosphere. Normally, after delivering its cargo to the ISS, Progress spacecraft would be undocked from the orbital laboratory and then a command is sent to purposely send it to reenter the atmosphere and disintegrate over the South Pacific area, so that any surviving debris would not pose a danger to populated areas.

What observers might see when the spacecraft re-enters. You can track the location of Progress 59 as its orbits is decaying, and even verify predictions to see if it the spacecraft can be seen on its final orbits from your location. Track Progress 59 prior to reentry here.

Or just keep an eye on your skies in the next few days, just in case you happen to be in the spacecraft’s reentry area. The Russian cargo spacecraft should disintegrate around May 8 (+/- 24 hours), as soon as it enters the densest part of our atmosphere, about 70 – 75 miles (112-120 km) high.

A disintegrating spacecraft will look like a spectacular meteor, or fiery streak, across Earth’s sky. It may be visible in daytime. One way of identifying it as a possible manmade object, and not a natural meteor, is that reentering manmade objects appear considerably slower upon reentry than natural space rocks. The re-entry might appear slow enough to allow you to quickly grab a camera and take pictures or video, something that usually is very difficult with much faster natural meteors.

Also, reentering spacecraft have shown significant fragmentation. It is possible to see chunks – possibly in varying colors – creating bursts of light as they fly off the main meteor.

A reentry trajectory from southwest to northeast – as well as from northwest to southeast – is consistent with the orbit of this type of spacecraft.

Before the Progress vehicle reenters the atmosphere, the spacecraft may be visible to the unaided eye from some (unknown) locations as it is still orbiting Earth. Remember that orbiting objects and satellites appear as slowly “moving stars” in our sky. During the last days of the Progress M-27M / 59P mission, the craft should appear to move somewhat faster than other satellites – faster than the apparent speed of ISS – because you are looking at an object that is more than twice as close as other orbiting objects.

While still in orbit, it may show show variations of brightness, which would confirm the object is still tumbling in space and thus reflecting sunlight intermittently.

An unpiloted Russian Progress 50 (50P) resupply ship, seen here shortly after undocking from the International Space Station in July, 2013.
An unpiloted Russian Progress 50 (50P) resupply ship, seen here shortly after undocking from the International Space Station in July, 2013.

If you see a slow and bright, fragmenting “meteor” as described here, please share your sighting reports and location in the comments below, or visit EarthSky communities on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

By the way, according to NASA, the ISS crew is not in danger of running out of food or supplies. SpaceX already had a scheduled launch to bring more supplies to the ISS on June 19.

Bottom line: A Progress 59 re-supply craft, launched from Kazakhstan on April 28, quickly lost control. Soon it will fall from space and may produce a fiery streak in our sky. ESA, NASA and Russian authorities cannot rule out the possibility that some portion of the craft survive reentry to reach Earth’s surface. This post contains information on how to track the spacecraft before re-entry, and on what you might see if you are in the reentry area.

Source EarthSky News