Russia launched its latest cargo ship to the International Space Station on Feb. 10, 2009. The Progress M-66 robot cargo ship, carrying 2.4 metric tons of cargo to the ISS, will supplement cargo to be delivered on the Space Shuttle Discovery on the upcoming STS-119 mission. The Progress, based on the Soyuz crew transport spacecraft, uses the reliable Soyuz booster to get to Low Earth Orbit, then performs an automated rendezvous with the ISS. The crew onboard monitors the Progress approach, and can take over for a manual, remote-controlled docking should the Progress autopilot system drift off course.
Russia provides Progress report to the Station as part of its commitment to the international Station partnership. NASA has decided that from 2011 on it will no longer purchase a portion of the Progress capacity, instead relying on commercial cargo shipments to the ISS from its contractors, like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. In addition, international vehicles like the ATV and HTV (from Japan, first launch in Sep. 09) will also haul cargo to the Station.
Progress M-01M last week undocked from the Station, carrying trash, crew waste, and surplus gear. The Progress, which had been in orbit at the Station since November, reentered the atmosphere and burned up over the Pacific. The incinerated contents of the spacecraft were dispersed into the atmosphere; a few fragments probably reached the ocean. Next time you wipe down your bookshelves, consider where some of that airborne dust might have come from.
Last time I was at the ISS, eight years ago during the STS-98 mission, no Progress was docked, but a load of Progress cargo was evident inside, strapped into the walls of the FGB module.