A Russian Progress cargo ship bound for the International Space Station spun out of control Tuesday. Engineers were unable to direct the wayward ship and soon gave up any hope that it would be able to dock to deliver the 3 tons of equipment and supplies it was carrying for the space station crew. Now, it's a waiting game, as the craft tumbles back toward Earth, and specialists on the ground can't say for sure when it will return -- or where it might be heading.
A NASA statement released Thursday said, "...the Progress currently is expected to reenter Earth's atmosphere within the next two weeks. Russian ballistics specialists, working in conjunction with flight controllers in Mission Control Houston and ESA, are continuing to track the vehicle's path and will provide updates on its anticipated reentry date."
Upon reentry, the ship will burn up and come apart, and though there will be no salvaging the cargo on board, some material could survive the trip and reach the ground.
Russia's Progress supply crafts always end their missions with a fiery reentry into the Earth's atmosphere that typically leaves just some remnants of the ship falling to ground. Under normal circumstances, ground control targets the timing of reentry so that debris won't land in populated areas. But in this case, with the ship out of a stable orbit and engineers unable to regain control of its propulsion system, where pieces may end up is almost anyone's guess.
"The Progress is going to come down where it comes down," said CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood. "And while I can't say that the chance of getting hit by debris is zero, it's very close to zero. Remember, the Earth is three-quarters water, so there's a very good chance it's going to land in an ocean somewhere, whatever manages to survive."
He added that given population density, even if material does hit land, the odds of someone being in danger are "extremely low, but they're not zero."
NASA said the United States Air Force Joint Functional Component Command for Space's Joint Space Operations Center is tracking Progress as it gets pulled down toward the lower atmosphere and will provide "warning of any potential collisions in space."
Experts still don't know what caused the ship to go haywire as it approached the ISS carrying 3 tons of water, food, fresh air tanks, propellant and supplies including clothing for three new members who will soon join the space station crew. Shortly after the Progress separated from the third stage of the Soyuz booster that rocketed it into space, it seemed some "propulsive event" sent the ship into a strange and unstoppable spin.
NASA has confirmed that crew members will be fine without their expected shipment and that "the break up and reentry of the Progress poses no threat to the ISS crew."
The same can't be said for Progress herself.
Said Harwood, "It will be a catastrophic end for Progress, no doubt about it."