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Unmanned Russian spaceship hurtling out of control

Russia's space agency is trying to regain control of a malfunctioning robotic cargo ship that was destined for the International Space Station.

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    A Soyuz rocket launches the unmanned Progress 59 cargo ship from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on April 28, 2015 on a mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Progress 59 reached orbit, but then malfunctioned.
    Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency)
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The Russian space agency Roscosmos is scrambling to regain control of a robotic Progress 59 cargo ship that appears to have suffered a serious malfunction shortly after launching into orbit early today (April 28).

Video from the Progress 59 spacecraft showed it in a dizzying spin, with the Earth and sun rapidly coming into and then out of frame. Russian flight controllers abandoned plans to attempt to dock the cargo ship with the International Space Station on Thursday (April 30), NASA spokesman Rob Navias said in a NASA TV update. That docking — originally scheduled for this morning, then pushed to Thursday — is now "indefinitely postponed," Navias said.

The problems began shortly after Progress 59 launched into space atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Liftoff occurred at 3:09 a.m. EDT (0709 GMT), with the cargo ship packed with just over 3 tons of food, fuel and other supplies. [How Russia's Progress Spacecraft Work (Infographic)]

"Almost immediately after spacecraft separation, a series of telemetry problems were detected with the Progress 59," Navias said during a televised broadcast from NASA's Mission Control center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "No confirmation of navigational antenna deploy or of the pressurization of the manifold system for the propulsion system on the spacecraft was received."

Russian flight controllers attempted to regain control of Progress 59 as the spacecraft made four orbits around Earth, with no success. Late tonight, the spacecraft will make another series of passes over Russian ground stations, and flight controllers will resume their recovery work then, Navias said.

"The crew on board the International Space Station has pressed ahead with maintenance work today as well as biomedical experiment activities," he added. The station's current Expedition 43 crew includes three Russians, two Americans and one Italian astronaut.

Russia's Progress spacecraft are disposable robotic cargo ships that have served as workhorse resupply vehicles for the International Space Station. They have been restocking the station since the first crews took up residence in 2000 and have a long track record of success. In August 2011, a launch malfunction led to thecrash of the Progress 44 cargo ship.

Progress vehicles are equipped with a Kurs automated navigation system that allows them to make autonomous dockings with the space station. A backup system, called the Telerobotically Operated Rendezvous Unit, allows cosmonauts on the station to take manual remote control in the event of a Kurs system failure.

Progress spacecraft have a similar three-module appearance to Russia's manned Soyuz space capsules.  Instead of a crew capsule, Progress vehicles carry a tanker module filled with propellant for use in reboosting the space station's orbit.

Russia's Progress vehicles are part of a fleet of robotic spacecraft that routinely deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Robotic ships from Japan and Europe have made supply runs, as well as commercial spacecraft built by the U.S. companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., which fly delivery missions for NASA.

The most recent cargo ship to visit the space station was the unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule, which launched on April 14 and arrived at the orbiting lab on April 17. 

Space.com Staff Writer Calla Cofield contributed to this report. Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

Copyright 2015 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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