Russia Launches Space Cargo Ship, But Its Fate Is Unclear

A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the unmanned Progress 65 cargo ship toward the International Space Station from Bailkonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Dec. 1, 2016.
A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the unmanned Progress 65 cargo ship toward the International Space Station from Bailkonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Dec. 1, 2016. The spacecraft was carrying 2.5 tons of supplies for the space station's crew. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Update for 1 pm EST: The Russian space agency Roscosmos has confirmed the loss of the Progress 65 spacecraft, which burned up in the atmosphere after an anomaly occurred during third-stage separation of the rocket booster. Remaining debris from the incinerated spacecraft fell over the Tuva Republic in southern Siberia. Read the full story here: Russian Space Cargo Ship Destroyed in Failed Launch, Debris Burns Up 

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, launched a new cargo ship to the International Space Station today (Dec. 1), but the fate of the robotic supply ship is unclear after issues cropped up during its trip into space.

The unmanned Progress 65 spacecraft blasted off atop a Russian Soyuz-U rocket at 9:51 a.m. EST (1451 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a mission to deliver more than 2.5 tons (2.3 metric tons) of food, equipment and other supplies to the space station. It was expected to arrive at the space station on Saturday (Dec. 3). [Watch: NASA Explains Status of Progress 65 Spacecraft]

But while the initial moments of the flight went as planned, flight controllers at Russia's mission control center near Moscow detected "ratty telemetry" as the Soyuz booster's third stage was firing.

Today's launch started off seemingly smooth and flawless. During a live webcast of the launch, NASA spokesman Rob Navias of the Johnson Space Center in Houston announced that "all vehicle parameters [were] reported performing perfectly" about 2 minutes after liftoff. Nearly 7 minutes later, the spacecraft achieved preliminary orbit insertion.

But as Progress 65 was entering Earth's orbit, mission controllers began to experience what Navias called ratty telemetry data during the end of the third-stage engine performance. At first it was unclear whether the third-stage engines had shut down and separated from the spacecraft. "Third-stage separation may have happened earlier than planned," Navias said.

Shortly thereafter, Navias announced that telemetry data "received in bits and pieces indicated that the navigational antennas have deployed." However, the fate of the spacecraft's solar arrays was up in limbo. Though telemetry data showed the solar panels were no longer stowed, whether they were successfully deployed remains uncertain.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos prepares the unmanned Progress 65 (also known as Progress MS-04) for its Dec. 1, 2016 launch. The craft was packed with 2.5 tons of supplies for the International Space Station. (Image credit: RSC Energia)

Russia's unmanned Progress spacecraft are the workhorse delivery ships of the country's space fleet. See how Russia's Progress cargo vehicles work in this infographic. (Image credit: Karl Tate, Contributor)

If the mission is able to carry on, the Progress spacecraft's journey to the orbiting laboratory should last about two days. On Saturday, Progress is scheduled to dock to the station at the Zvezda module at 11:43 a.m. EST (1643 GMT).

Russia's three-module Progress spacecraft have an appearance similar to that of the country's Soyuz crew capsules. But instead of a crew module, the Progress has a module filled with propellant for the International Space Station.

Progress spacecraft are autonomous and can fly themselves to the space station, as well as park at one of several docking ports on the outpost's Russian modules. Cosmonauts inside the station can also take remote control of Progress vehicles if needed. At the end of their mission, Progress vehicles are loaded with trash and unneeded items, undocked from the station and intentionally burned up in Earth's atmosphere.

Progress vehicles are part of a fleet of unmanned cargo ship that keep space station crews stocked with supplies. That fleet includes Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle, as well as the Dragon spacecraft built by SpaceX and Cygnus supply ships built by Orbital ATK. The European Space Agency also flew five supply missions with its huge Autonomous Transfer Vehicles before ending that program.

Editor's Note: This story will be updated as new details are available. 

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Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.