Video of the Progress re-entry!

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2011 1:30 pm

Last week I posted a picture of the fiery re-entry of a Progress re-supply ship as seen by Mike Fossum on board the space station. It was one of several pictures he took, and via Universe Today is a video of the descent of the spacecraft!

Holy wow! You can see the trail of plasma starting to blow off the main spacecraft just as the video begins, and if you look carefully you can see bigger chunks of material falling off the main body — just like in the big picture I posted earlier (seen below).

While this may seem like a waste of a spacecraft, in fact this serves a very useful purpose: it gets rid of trash and other cast-offs by the astronauts on the International Space Station. By collecting it and getting rid of it all at once they don’t have to worry about creating more space debris which is a hazard to other satellites, or even the ISS itself — a very real concern.

Moreover, Progresses are not re-usable, so there’s no sense in trying to land them again. Also, it takes less fuel to slow a Progress spacecraft enough to let it burn up in our atmosphere than it would to slow it down enough to land it safely anyway. That means even more savings in getting payloads to space.

So all in all it makes sense to simply use them as a way to keep the ISS tidy. It may be a bit ignominious, but wow, what a way to go!


Related posts:

Astronaut snaps amazing pic as ISS cargo ship burns up over Pacific
What a falling star looks like… from space!
The fiery descent of Atlantis… seen from space!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (28)

  1. It seems counterintuitive how little it slows down.

  2. Stunning. I was on console in the Flight Control Room when Commander Fossum was telling us he was taking these pictures. Glad he got them!

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  3. One thing I don’t understand about this video (and the earlier photo) is how come they could even see it from the spacecraft? I’m no orbital mechanics expert, but wouldn’t the spacecraft have to slow down and thus be far behind the ISS, by the time it reaches atmosphere? Or is the ISS an orbit ahead, by this point?

  4. Paul

    Eric: it fell behind a little initially, but then fell to lower altitude, sped up (as gravitational energy is converted to kinetic energy) and pulled away. The speed at which it hits the atmosphere is greater than the speed at which the ISS is traveling in its circular orbit.

  5. Sam H

    Fantastic vid :) I think I can see the cloud tops reflecting the light of the plasma trail toward the end of it. I can only imagine what it would’ve looked like in person, staring out the cupola at a meteor streaking toward the sunrise.

  6. John

    Notice the fireball’s reflection off the clouds or water below, starting about :07…cool.

  7. John P

    That.
    Is.
    Awesome!

    I want that view!

  8. Great video thanks. :-)

    Moreover, Progresses are not re-usable, so there’s no sense in trying to land them again.

    Well, not on our Earth anyhow! ;-)

    But I wonder, could we fit them with cameras and send them further into space out of Earth’s gravity well and use them “throwaway” space probes to passing asteroids and comets even Mars and beyond perhaps? Has that ever been considered?

    Seems to me it might be possible to do this in a multi-purpose way while still packing them full of the rubbish from the ISS too! . ;-)

  9. Peter B

    MTU @ #8 asked: “But I wonder, could we fit them with cameras and send them further into space out of Earth’s gravity well and use them “throwaway” space probes to passing asteroids and comets even Mars and beyond perhaps? Has that ever been considered?”

    Earth escape velocity is over 40% higher than orbital velocity, so it would take a shedload of fuel. Plus, if you load the Progress with rubbish, you’re increasing its mass, which would increase the required fuel load even further. By contrast, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere requires a speed decrease of only a few percent.

  10. @ ^ Peter B : Ah of course. Thanks.

    But still .. what if we fitted those Progress modules with ion drives as used for the Deep Space One, Hayabusa and Dawn missions? They use a lot less fuel don’t they? Possibly enough less to make the suggestion practical? Okay, it’d mean shipping the engines, some fuel and a bit more gear up but could that prove worth doing?

    PS. Click my name for the ion drive wiki-page.

  11. flip

    And there I was wondering why they don’t bother landing it and dealing with whatever (unsavoury) rubbish came back, and as usual, Phil answers it for me in the post. When you look at it, it really does make more sense to ‘blow it up’ in the atmosphere than deal with it on the ground.

  12. Nigel Depledge

    Paul (4) said:

    Eric: it fell behind a little initially, but then fell to lower altitude, sped up (as gravitational energy is converted to kinetic energy) and pulled away. The speed at which it hits the atmosphere is greater than the speed at which the ISS is traveling in its circular orbit.

    Yup, orbital mechanics are thoroughly counter-intuituve. To speed up, you can’t simply increase your velocity in your direction of travel, because that will put you into a higher orbit which is slower (relative to the body you are orbiting). To speed up and overtake an object in the same orbit, you have to move to a lower orbit, which means you must dissipate some of your orbital velocity.

    Incidentally, the guy who worked out all the details on this for the Apollo programme was a guy you might have heard of – one Buzz Aldrin, PhD. The other astronauts called him “Dr Rendezvous”.

  13. AR

    I was recently thinking about launch loops and orbital rings, and I realized that an interesting implication of rail-based launch and capture is that regenerative braking would make re-entry a net energy gain. Indeed, any ship that landed with more mass than it left with could come out of the underway selling back more power to the launch system than it consumed going up!

    Funny to imagine de-orbiting space junk as a source of revenue rather than a necessary expenditure.

  14. Is that video played back real-time, or sped up? If it is real-time, I’m afraid I’d probably get a severe case of space-sickness looking out the window.

    But it would be worth it. :)

  15. Gary Ansorge

    12. Nigel Depledge

    Robert Heinlien pointed out the counter intuitive aspect of orbital mechanics in some of his books. I wonder if he acquired his info from Buzz?

    Gary 7

  16. Joseph G

    @12 Nigel Depledge: Yup, orbital mechanics are thoroughly counter-intuituve. To speed up, you can’t simply increase your velocity in your direction of travel, because that will put you into a higher orbit which is slower (relative to the body you are orbiting). To speed up and overtake an object in the same orbit, you have to move to a lower orbit, which means you must dissipate some of your orbital velocity.

    Incidentally, the guy who worked out all the details on this for the Apollo programme was a guy you might have heard of – one Buzz Aldrin, PhD. The other astronauts called him “Dr Rendezvous”.

    Interesting, I didn’t know that about Buzz – er, Dr. Aldrin.
    A lot of these things are tough to conceptualize until you try them out. I highly recommend the Orbiter simulator (go to orbitersim dot com) for anyone wishing to play with orbital maneuvers. It’s FREE and extremely physically accurate (even tidal forces and solar sails are included now). It’s a great feeling of accomplishment the first time you manage to launch from KSC, fine-tune your orbit for a rendevouz, and get close enough to the ISS for things to get “intuitive” so that you can dock.
    Personally, I never looked at it as “speeding up” or “slowing down” so much as “taking an inside track” versus taking an outside track (that is, to catch up to the ISS from behind, you match your apoapsis with the ISS, and burn retrograde to lower your orbit so that it’s “smaller.” If your burn is just right, when you both reach apoapsis again, you’ll be a dozen klicks away or so (where you then make a prograde burn to match orbits). That’s another counterintuitive thing – if you make just a single burn to raise or lower your orbit, the point at which you make the burn won’t change. To circularize your orbit, you need to do a burn on the other side.

  17. Joseph G

    @13 AR: I was recently thinking about launch loops and orbital rings, and I realized that an interesting implication of rail-based launch and capture is that regenerative braking would make re-entry a net energy gain. Indeed, any ship that landed with more mass than it left with could come out of the underway selling back more power to the launch system than it consumed going up!

    Funny to imagine de-orbiting space junk as a source of revenue rather than a necessary expenditure.

    The idea of electromagnetic rail launch is fascinating to me, and IMHO, a lot more practical then a space elevator (particularly for a planet with so many satellites around it!) Capture, though… Oof. I know the physics are extremely well understood, and it’d all be computer controlled, but the thought of being in a craft at orbital velocities and closing in on a solid earthbound structure would definitely give me the heebie-jeebies!! Even the thought of living anywhere near the loop and knowing they were capturing stuff would probably have me digging a bomb shelter “just in case.” :)

  18. mike saunders

    If anyone wants to learn about orbital mechanics try out kerbal space program. It is way less dry than orbiter and much more fun. This is coming from someone who did a homework set about orbits in Matlab. It also gives a good impression how pie in the sky launch loops and space elevators are.

  19. Joseph G

    @18 Mike: Thanks! I’d never heard of that one before. It looks like it’s still under construction, but I’ll give it a shot the next time I boot to Windows :)

  20. Blizno

    “11. flip Says:
    And there I was wondering why they don’t bother landing it and dealing with whatever (unsavoury) rubbish came back, and as usual, Phil answers it for me in the post. When you look at it, it really does make more sense to ‘blow it up’ in the atmosphere than deal with it on the ground.”

    It must be much cheaper and lighter to build a craft that can reach orbit but can’t survive reentry than one that can survive. You don’t need heat shielding, for one thing. You don’t need parachutes or fuel to steer the craft until the parachutes open. You don’t need to launch more fuel to lift the added weight of reentry equipment. You don’t need to recover the craft and transport it.

    We learned the hard way that surviving reentry is difficult and dangerous. It’s much cheaper just to let the atmosphere break up the craft and the ocean will swallow any pieces that survive.

  21. AR

    @Joseph G

    There are forms of space elevator that avoid the problem of debris collisions, such as the aforementioned orbital ring. An orbital ring would exist at an altitude at which orbits are not stable, and accelerate payloads along its circumference rather than speeding them up during ascent as in a geostationary space elevator. Detail on the concept can be found at Paul Birch’s page, under “Orbital Ring Systems and Jacob’s Ladders.”

  22. Mike Saunders

    @19 Joseph: They just updated to add in a moon that you can land on. When you finally build a rocket of your own design, land on the moon, and take off again it feels really rewarding!

  23. Peter B

    MTU @ #10 said: “But still .. what if we fitted those Progress modules with ion drives as used for the Deep Space One, Hayabusa and Dawn missions? They use a lot less fuel don’t they?”

    More precisely, I think they get much more thrust for a given mass of fuel.

    “Possibly enough less to make the suggestion practical? Okay, it’d mean shipping the engines, some fuel and a bit more gear up but could that prove worth doing?”

    I have to say I’m skeptical. Look at it from the other side – imagine telling some planetary scientists that they’re going to get the exploratory mission they want, but their spacecraft is first going to call at the ISS to pick up some rubbish. Keep in mind that missions require a lot more than just cameras – most exploratory spacecraft carry all sorts of scientific instruments – and I’d be worried about their operation being affected by whatever happens to be in the rubbish.

    I suppose it comes back to my philosophy about spacecraft – that spacecraft should be designed specifically for their type of mission, rather than designing them to be a-bit-of-everythings. In my opinion this was the constant bugbear of the Space Shuttle. It was designed to be a bit of everything and ended up being not very efficient at anything. After all, when it comes to vehicular transport, we don’t design vehicles which can both carry large cargo loads and also safely transport and house a family: we design semi-trailers and vans and utes for heavy loads, and campervans for extended stays in a vehicle, and people movers for simply transporting them. While designing several spacecraft for different tasks would be more expensive at the start, the operating costs should be much lower.

  24. flip

    #20 Blizno

    And yet it does make me wonder about the ecological impact of dumping whatever’s leftover into the ocean. I have heard of ships being sunk in order to aid growth of life, but never really bothered to look into whether or not that actually has any benefit or if it has its downsides.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 23. Peter B : Hmm .. yeah. Oh well thanks.

  26. MKS

    So THAT’S what the answer to life, universe and everything looks like.

  27. Joseph G

    @23 Peter B: I suppose it comes back to my philosophy about spacecraft – that spacecraft should be designed specifically for their type of mission, rather than designing them to be a-bit-of-everythings. In my opinion this was the constant bugbear of the Space Shuttle. It was designed to be a bit of everything and ended up being not very efficient at anything.

    Ah yes, the Spork Effect :)
    This is one thing that impressed the hell out of me regarding the Russian Buran program. Superficial visual similarities aside, it was really a completely different system. In the Buran, the Energia launch stack was an independent unit, and the Buran was just basically a payload strapped to the side. With minimal changes, it could be launched without the Buran orbiter, with a LOT of cargo instead. Instead of doing what NASA did, which was futz around for years after the fact with ideas of a “Shuttle Derived Launch” system, re-using various components to create new vehicles, the Buran/Energia program had that capability from the start.

  28. Tribeca Mike

    Never thought I’d see the day when I’d get to see that. Thanks very much!

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