Engineers do not know why an unmanned Russian rocket meant to carry supplies to the International Space Station (I.S.S.) crashed last Wednesday. After one of the rocket’s fuel tanks lost pressure, the on-board computer shut down the corresponding engine, resulting in mission failure. The loss of the supplies is of no immediate consequence. The astronauts aboard the station have plenty of food and clothing to last them until they are scheduled to return to Earth by November at the latest.
What’s the Big Idea?
The astronauts on board must return by November because their reentry capsules have a sell-by date (hydrogen peroxide necessary for the capsules’ thrusters corrode over time). If the Russian rocket’s malfunction is not corrected by then, the I.S.S. will be unmanned for the first time in a decade. Some experiments like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle physics experiment installed last May, can be remotely operated. Others will be abandoned. In addition, the risk that the station will lose orbit and crash to Earth increases without a crew on board.