Wayward Russian spacecraft could hit Earth Friday

After a failed space station supply mission, the out-of-control cargo ship (or what's left of it) could crash down soon. Where pieces may end up is almost anyone's guess.

Amanda Schupak SciTech Editor, CBSNews.com
Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com
Amanda Schupak
2 min read

This image shows a previous Russian supply capsule, Progress 47, succesfully docked to the ISS. NASA

After a failed resupply mission to the International Space Station last week, a Russian Progress cargo ship that spun out of control is expected to reenter the atmosphere and crash to Earth Friday.

Or, what's left of it is anyway.

Progress 59 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan April 28 carrying 2 tons of supplies for the crew aboard ISS. But the ship suddenly spun out of control and engineers were unable to direct the wayward craft to its destination. They soon gave up any hope that it would be able to dock with the space station and commenced a waiting game, tracking the craft as it tumbled in space and back toward Earth. Specialists on the ground couldn't say for sure when it would return -- or where it might be heading.

The Russian space agency said Wednesday that Progress is likely to fall from orbit early Friday.

Wednesday afternoon Roscosmos radar located the ship over the Pacific Ocean roughly between Japan and Australia, moving on a northeasterly trajectory, according to CBS News space correspondent William Harwood.

"They know exactly where it is," he said. The question is where it's going. As it moves closer to the Earth's low atmosphere, the drag forces on the ship increase, causing it to come down in an unpredictable way.

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 fiery reentries into the Earth's atmosphere that typically leave just some remnants of the ship falling to the 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.

"Reentries happen all the time," said Harwood, who emphasized that the small about of debris that is like to survive this reentry is unlikely to hit in a densely populated area.

That said, there is still much uncertainty as to what may fall, where and when.

Harwood said that impact was expected early Friday, US time -- plus or minus several hours -- and that there should be a better estimate Thursday.

And what about the 6,000 pounds of supplies that never made it to the space station? Harwood avowed that the ISS crew enjoys a "pretty good cushion" with at least four months worth of cargo kept onboard at all times. Resupply missions are scheduled in June and August.

"They're not rationing food or anything like that," he said.

This story originally appeared on CBSNews.com.