Take cover! Out-of-control Russian spaceship to smash into Earth within hours

Failed cargo pod should provide spectacular light show

Russian 'Progress' cargo vessel as seen from the International Space Station

The Russian space agency Roscosmos has confirmed that its out-of-control Progress cargo capsule will begin its fatal plunge toward Earth on Thursday.

Control of the 7,298kg (16,089lb) spacecraft was lost shortly after launch last week and the cargo pod, which is carrying three tons of supplies for the International Space Station, has been tumbling around Earth's atmosphere ever since.

Roscosmos said the spacecraft will come down sometime between 2231 UTC Thursday and 0151 UTC Friday, but that they aren't sure exactly where or when – so look to the skies tonight and you might be able to get a look at a very expensive fireworks display.

Progress capsules often burn up in the atmosphere, but we're seldom around to see them. Roscosmos times the pods' reentry over water, so that those fragments that don’t burn up in the atmosphere won’t hit anyone – unless there's a staggeringly unlucky sailor in the way.

But with this capsule – technically known as Progress M-27M – spinning out of control, punching it down into the sea isn't possible, and the Russian boffins aren't even sure where it's going to land.

As it reenters the atmosphere, the spacecraft will accelerate to some 16,000mph (25,750kph) and will compress the air in front of it, causing it to heat up and eventually destroy most of the capsule.

This spacecraft was scheduled to burn up anyway, once its cargo had been unpacked and replaced with waste from the ISS (such as packing materials, broken hardware, and dirty clothes). As it is, the capsule is still loaded with food, water, oxygen, and science experiments that were meant to resupply the ISS, as well as personal items for the crew.

The capsule should ignite around 70 or 80 miles up and observers will see a fast-moving shooting star as it burns. It's not known how much of the capsule, if any, will fall to the surface.

Roscosmos is conducting an investigation into the incident; the fault is thought to be down to an incorrectly deployed antenna, but no one's sure as yet. The agency said it might delay the next crew delivery using the Progress pod, currently scheduled for May 26, until the investigation is concluded. ®

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