Russian Space Station Cargo Ship Fails to Reach Orbit

Russian Space Station Cargo Ship Fails to Reach Orbit

Russia’s Progress MS-04 robotic cargo spacecraft, which was headed to the International Space Station (ISS), failed to reach orbit today.  An anomaly occurred during the burn of the rocket’s third stage.  An investigation is underway.  Russia launches approximately four Progress missions to ISS every year in addition to cargo delivered by U.S. and Japanese spacecraft.  The next cargo mission, Japan’s HTV6, is scheduled for launch next week.

Progress MS-04 launched on time at 9:51 am EST (8:51 pm local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) on a Soyuz-U rocket.  NASA refers to this as Progress 65.

Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos said a contingency occurred 382 seconds later at an altitude of 190 kilometers.  At that point, the Soyuz rocket’s third stage should still have been firing.

Roscosmos said a state commission is beginning an investigation into what went wrong. 

NASA notified astronaut Shane Kimbrough aboard the ISS about the failure, saying that there were indications of “third stage sep occurring a few minutes early and we haven’t had any communications with Progress at all.”   “Third stage sep” refers to separation between the rocket’s third stage and the spacecraft.  NASA posted the audio of its communication with Kimbrough on its ISS blog.

The spacecraft was loaded with 2.6 tons of food, scientific equipment, spare parts, oxygen, water, and propellant to refill tanks for the engines on ISS that periodically raise the space station’s orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag.  NASA said in a press release that U.S. supplies on board were spare parts for the environmental control and life support system, research hardware, crew supplies and clothing, “all of which are replaceable” and not critical for the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS).

Progress MS is the latest variant of Russia’s venerable robotic spacecraft that has been used to deliver food, fuel and other supplies to space station crews since the 1970s.  Its first use was in 1978 delivering fuel to the Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 space station, the first space station to have two docking ports, thereby enabling such resupply missions and extended duration spaceflights.  It has been through several upgrades over the decades (Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS).  The first flight of this variant, Progress MS-01, took place just about a year ago on December 21, 2015.  (NASA refers to Progress missions sequentially based on when they began supplying ISS.  Hence they call today’s mission Progress 65 because it is the 65th Progress mission to the ISS.)

The Soyuz-U rocket also has been in use for a long time — since 1973.  Russia is phasing it out and the newer Soyuz-2 is intended to replace it for these missions.  However, a Soyuz-2.1a launch of a Progress spacecraft (Progress M-27M) failed in April 2015.   Russia’s investigation concluded it was due to a “design peculiarity in the joint use of the spaceship and the rocket related to frequency-dynamic characteristics of the linkage between the spaceship and the rocket’s third stage.”  In that case, the spacecraft reached orbit (along with the third stage), but was out of control and in the wrong orbit.  It soon reentered.

Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report tweeted today about the ironic difference in the Progress M-27M and Progress MS-04 failures:

Anatoly Zak, editor of, tweeted that residents of the Tuva Region reported an explosion and shaking at the time of the anomaly.

Roscosmos said most of the fragments burned up in the atmosphere, while Russia’s official news agency, TASS, reported that debris may have fallen 60-80 kilometers west of Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. The area, in southern Siberia, is rugged and mountainous according to Russian media reports.

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