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GORNO-ALTAISK, September 6 (Itar-Tass) — The non-flying weather in the Altai Republic for a second day in a row has been making it impossible to begin the search for the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft fall site. The spaceship crashed in the Altai Mountains on August 24. The search party of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) on Tuesday morning was again on the ground waiting for weathermen’s permission to take off in their helicopter, deputy head of the impact areas department of Roskosmos Alexander Dvurechenky who takes part in the search told Itar-Tass.
According to him, if the weather improves and the flight takes place, the searchers plan during the day to once again examine from the air the southern part of the adjacent to the Ulagan district impact area 327 officially designated for landing of the spent stages of rockets launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome.
On Monday, September 5, the search team of the Russian Space Agency because of the bad weather also stayed on the ground, working with maps, planning routes of the upcoming flights and analysing the work already done. The weather was good in the search area on Saturday and Sunday - in those days the group flew a total of seven hours in a helicopter over the Ulagan, Turachak, Chemal and Choya districts of the Altai Republic, but found no fragments and traces of the fallen spacecraft. The total flying time of the Roskosmos helicopter reached 26 hours.
The many-day search operation that has yielded no results, so far confirms the main version of what happened – the spaceship fragments did not reach the ground, burning in the atmosphere. Dvurechensky believes that the rocket disintegrated at a high altitude (100 km) and only small parts of it, which cannot be detected by the search team, have reached the ground.
According to the Altai Republic department of the Federal Consumer Rights Protection and Human Health Control Service (Rospotrebnadzor), samples of soil and water taken daily at the supposed spacecraft debris fall area to determine if they contain the rocket fuel heptyl and kerosene have given negative results. The background radiation in the area also does not exceed the natural parameters. The monitoring of the sanitary-epidemiological situation in these areas will be conducted until September 10.
The cargo spacecraft crashed on August 24 at 20:55, local time, presumably in the Chebolak area of the Choya district of the Altai Republic. The spacecraft launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome was to deliver more than 2.6 tonnes of cargoes to the International Space Station (ISS).
The highly toxic rocket fuel heptyl can pose potential danger to people staying in the space debris fall zone. The rocket-space industry sources told Itar-Tass that the Progress spacecraft carried about 800 kilograms of heptyl intended for use on the ISS.
The Progress is an expendable freighter spacecraft. It is an unmanned resupply spacecraft during its flight but upon docking with a space station, it allows astronauts inside, hence it is classified manned by the manufacturer. It was derived from the Soyuz spacecraft, and is launched with the Soyuz rocket. It is currently used to supply the ISS, but was originally used to supply Soviet space stations for many years. There are three to four flights of the Progress spacecraft to the ISS per year. Each spacecraft remains docked until shortly before the new one, or a Soyuz (which uses the same docking ports) arrives. Then it is filled with waste, disconnected, deorbited, and destroyed in the atmosphere. Because of the different Progress variants used for ISS, NASA uses its own nomenclature where “ISS 1P” means the first Progress spacecraft to ISS.
It has carried fuel and other supplies to all the space stations since Salyut 6. The idea for the Progress came from the realisation that in order for long duration space missions to be possible, there would have to be a constant source of supplies. It had been determined that a cosmonaut needed consumables (water, air, food, etc.) plus there was a need for maintenance items and payloads for experiments. It was impractical to launch this along with passengers in the small space available in the Soyuz.
Progress M-12M was launched by a Soyuz-U carrier rocket, flying from Area 1/5 of the Baikonur cosmodrome. Lift-off occurred at 13:00:11 UTC on 24 August 2011. Approximately 325 seconds into flight, a malfunction was detected in the RD-0110 engine powering the Blok I third stage of the Soyuz-U rocket, which caused the onboard computer to terminate the flight through thrust termination. As a result, the vehicle failed to achieve orbit, re-entering over the Altai Republic. It was the first failure of a Progress spacecraft since launches began in 1978, and the third consecutive orbital launch failure worldwide, following the failures of Express-AM4 and Shijian XI-04 less than a week previously.
The failure was not expected to have any immediate effect on the ISS crew, as the outpost was stocked with reserves of food, water and oxygen. The spacecraft was insured for three billion roubles (US$103 million). As a precaution, the launch of a GLONASS satellite on a Soyuz-2-1b/Fregat, which had been scheduled for 26 August, was delayed.