“It has started descending. It has nowhere else to go,” an official familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity, speaking ahead of an official Russian space agency statement expected later in the day. “It is clear that absolutely uncontrollable reactions have begun.”
The official said the descent likely marked the end of the Progress spacecraft‘s mission although the Russian authorities will contact it again to make sure everything has been done to rescue it.
“We have scheduled two more communication sessions to soothe our conscience,” said the official, adding it was hard to predict when exactly the vessel would fall back to Earth.
A spokesman for the Russian space agency, Mikhail Fadeyev, declined immediate comment.
The Progress 59 freighter blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Minutes later the freighter reached its preliminary orbit and deployed a pair of solar panels. However, ground control teams then lost contact with the ship, unable to confirm if its communications system was working or if it was ready for a series of steering burns to reach the orbital outpost, which flies about 418 kilometres above Earth.
NASA said the Progress was spinning out of control.
The ship was originally scheduled to rendezvous with the station six hours after launch, and Russian flight controllers set their sights on a backup opportunity on Thursday. However, efforts to contact the freighter have been unsuccessful.
“We are standing down from any planning for a Thursday rendezvous,” mission commentator Rob Navias said during a NASA TV broadcast.
If it cannot be manoeuvred, at some point it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and incinerate. If that happens, it would be the second station cargo ship lost in the past six months.
A US Cygnus freighter, owned and operated by Orbital ATK , was destroyed in a launch accident in October.
Progress carries 2769 kilograms of cargo, including 880 kilograms of fuel plus spare parts, experiment hardware and other supplies.
There was nothing aboard Progress that was critical for US operations of the station, NASA said.
The item in shortest supply was food, NASA program manager Mike Suffredini wrote in an email.
The station, which is staffed by rotating crews of six astronauts and cosmonauts, currently had enough food for more than four months, he said, adding that several other vehicles, including a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship, another Progress capsule and a Japanese HTV freighter, were all due to launch over the next few months.
The station had enough fuel to last more than a year, Mr Suffredini said.
The station, a $126 billion project of 15 nations, is a laboratory as big as a five-bedroom house that hosts a wide array of science experiments and technology research.