Mission of the Progress MS-04 showed, that even routine mission could bring unpredicted problems.
Mission was planned as regular supply flight with fourth from the latest generation of Progress cargo spacecrafts combined with proven and reliable Soyuz-U rocket. Launch was scheduled to be conducted from legendary Gagarin’s Start (Launch Site 5/1) at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Soyuz-U was rolled out and inspected by State Commission on Tuesday. Best specialists accepted condition of the rocket at launch site and gave green light for MS-04 mission. Progress with over 2400 kg of cargo (food, hardware, fuel, water, oxygen) was waiting on atop of Soyuz-U for today 14:52 UTC to start its mission to International Space Station.
One minute before launch, Soyuz-U and Progress MS-04 were already switched to internal power, fuel tanks were pressurized, guidance, navigation and telemetry systems were turned on. Everything was looking as it should be during ordinary cargo mission, which will be finished after two days of planned testing Progress. At 14:52:51 UTC rocket ignited engines of four boosters along with second stage and started to rise over Baikonur. Spectacular launch was followed with planned pitch and roll maneuver and jettisoning four boosters at T+1’58”. Parameters were correct and according to Mission Control Center at Korolev under Moscow, flight seemed to be nominal. Core second stage was continuing flight according to plan and at T+2’43” payload fairing was jettisoned and Progress MS-04 was exposed. Second stage should deliver upper stage with Progress on atop to preliminary orbit; it was cut off at T+4’47” and separated after next two seconds. At that moment there was no sign, that something is not correct. Upper stage was ignited and mission proceed nominally according to MCC. At T+8’46” upper stage was cut off and two seconds later Progress MS-04 was deployed. As soon as spacecraft started its flight it should deploy antennas and solar arrays to send full telemetry data and report in its current condition. Unfortunately first telemetry data from last part of the flight (when Progress was still on atop of last stage of Soyuz) were not completely clear and Russian specialists were not able to confirm correct separation of the Progress. First suppositions were, that third stage started its flight on lower altitude that it was planned and it performed prolonged burn. In the meantime, MCC received confirmation, that Progress deployed antennas, but solar arrays were not completely unfolded. First sign, that something went wrong was post on official Twitter profile of Roscosmos. It was announced, that communication with Progress was lost already at T+6’22” and no telemetry data since then were received. First official confirmation of disaster of Progress was given at 17:39 UTC. Situation was described as anomaly in flight, which caused malfunction of upper stage of Soyuz-U on altitude of 190 km at T+6’22”. Special State Commission, which is always conducting investigation on every anomaly during every space mission, already started to work to evaluate potential reasons for accident. For the moment only one thing is sure: Progress with upper stage burned in dense layers of atmosphere after it failed to reach correct orbit. There was no any potential danger for anybody – even if Progress with upper stage did not burned completely, particles fall on Earth on inhabited parts of Republic of Tyva in the South Eastern part of Russian Federation.
65th mission of Progress to ISS and third in 2016 was not lucky for Roscosmos. Luckily astronauts inside ISS have enough supplies to live and work in space without any problems; mission of Japanese HTV (dedicated for delivering spare batteries for ISS power system) will also provide some supplies. Most painful is loss of spacecraft and fact that Roscosmos is forced to pay for another rocket and Progress vehicle, not to mention about costs of investigation. Progress probably was not delivering any extraordinary payload. In spite of 710 kg of propellant for Zvezda module (which seems to be most important due the fact that only Progress is able to refuel ISS propulsion module), MS-04 was also carrying 420 kg of water, 52 kg of oxygen. Rest from 2440 kg of cargo were: food (315 kg), medical equipment and hygienic articles (115 kg) hardware and spares for air purification system. Also specially for Russian segment spare parts for toilets and waste containers system were packed, along with new Orlan space suits for planned EVA. Inside Progress MS-04 were also spare cables, photographic equipment and of course science experiments.Also 87 kg of NASA equipment was lost – mainly parts for environmental control systems and water recycling system of American segment of the Station.