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Russia is Having a Very Bad Year in Spaceflight

Russia seems to be having numerous issues with spacecraft this year. After the dual loss of the Progress M-27M mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and the loss of a Proton-M rocket carrying MexSat-1, word comes from the space station that the currently berthed Progress M-26M is acting up.

Earlier today, engineers ordered the Progress spacecraft to fire its engines to provide a much needed boost to the ISS. This is done periodically to keep the station from falling into a low orbit that could result in the station re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When the command was given, the Progress refused to fire its engines. Controllers on the ground are currently troubleshooting the issue with hopes that a resolution may be found quickly. While the ISS is in no immediate danger, the lack of the orbital boost could become an issue.

Engineers currently suspect the main engine controller board but until they complete their analysis, the cannot be certain.

The loss of control of the Progress M-26M engines comes on the heals of some pretty challenging days. First Russia had issues with the launch of the Soyuz rocket with Progress M-27M on board. An anomaly with the third stage resulted in a mis-aligned orbit. Additionally, the Progress was left in an uncontrolled spin. The result was the total loss of the craft when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on May 5th.

That loss forced Russia to re-evaluate the upcoming manned Soyuz flight to the ISS. That launch has been postponed from May to July of this year to give engineers time to ascertain any threat to astronaut safety.

Just this morning, Russia suffered another launch setback with the failure of the third stage on a Proton-M rocket carrying Mexico’s next generation telecommunications satellite. That spacecraft (MexSat-1) would have provided secure communications channels for the Mexican government as well as public channels for video and audio feeds. The satellite was to provide new KU and L band communications.

While setback such as these due occur in spaceflight, this latest series cripples Russia’s ability to launch just about any payloads either manned or cargo. The bulk of their fleet is currently grounded. Options for cargo runs are limited. Orbital Sciences’ Antares vehicle is grounded due engine problems on their last flight resulting in the loss of the payload. Europe has ended the manufacture of their ATV cargo craft. Japanese HTVs may be possible if their timetable is compressed. SpaceX is the only cargo alternative still flying. No manned option exists.

With the triple loss that Russia has just experienced, spaceflight is in for a bumpy ride.

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