Shortly after its launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 10:12 a.m. UTC (6:12 a.m. EDT) Wednesday, the prospects for Russia’s Progress M-19M resupply craft continue to hang in the balance, but show some signs of brightening. One of the vehicle’s navigational antennas failed to deploy shortly after it reached orbit, threatening to jeopardize its mission to deliver 3.1 tons of food, water, supplies, and equipment to the six-man Expedition 35 crew aboard the International Space Station. Russian engineers remain upbeat that the problem will not interfere with tomorrow’s scheduled docking, and earlier this afternoon NASA appeared to endorse their sentiment, reporting that the cargo ship should still achieve a good hermetic seal with the sprawling orbital outpost.
Progress M-19M—part of a family of Soyuz-derived spacecraft, whose heritage dates back to the 1970s—was always expected to follow a standard two-day rendezvous profile, ahead of docking with the aft port of the station’s Zvezda module. Originally scheduled to fly on 22 April, its launch was postponed by two days, to avoid conflicting with the launch of the Bion-M biological research mission. Assuming a successful docking tomorrow (Friday), the craft will remain linked to the ISS for about seven weeks, during which time it will perform three re-boosts of the station’s orbit, before undocking and re-entering the atmosphere to destruction on 11 June.
Yesterday’s post-launch problem, however, initially threw this plan into disarray. “Once in orbit, an antenna used as a navigational aid on the Progress did not deploy,” NASA announced on Twitter. “Russian ground controllers are assessing a fix.” The hemispherical antenna is part of the Kurs (“Course”) rendezvous hardware and is utilized during the final approach to the ISS. It measures pitch and yaw angles from the station’s own antennas to within a distance of about 1.6 miles, enabling the Progress to maneuver toward a docking with the ISS. In November 2008, Progress M-01M suffered a similar antenna failure shortly after launch, although it was successfully revived and deployed after a few hours. In that case, Expedition 18 cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov took manual control with the TORU system and performed the docking manually, as a precaution.
In the case of Progress M-19M, the troublesome antenna has been confirmed as having failed, according to Russian sources, since it has not drawn electrical power since launch and has failed to respond to pre-programmed commands. Late on Thursday afternoon, Russian mission controllers in Moscow confirmed that a standard automated approach to the space station will be attempted, with the Expedition 35 crew monitoring the cargo ship’s progress at distances of 1,500 meters and 400 meters. At present, docking is scheduled for 12:26 p.m. UTC (8:26 a.m. EDT), and the belief is that a good hermetic seal with Zvezda can be achieved, although the undeployed antenna may pose an obstruction.
“We will try to open the antenna on the Progress once again,” Vitali Lopota, president and general constructor at RKK Energia, told Interfax yesterday. “Even if it doesn’t open, we will dock with the ISS in an automatic mode.” It was speculated in the hours after launch that the stowed antenna might interfere with the Zvezda docking mechanism and all options, including the possibility of an EVA, are believed to be under consideration.
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