The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, drew the attention of NASA experts in the days leading up to a scheduled launch of a Russian resupply mission destined for the International Space Station last Thursday, when pictures revealed an unusual object mounted to the exterior hull of the craft. When NASA requested information from the Russians regarding the undocumented payload, Russia offered only a vague statement indicating that it was scientific in nature, and intended for a one-way trip. This type of dismissal was not only uncharacteristic of the Russian/U.S. relationship in orbital enterprises, it’s unheard of when it comes to the international effort at the orbital space station.
The mystery, however, doesn’t end there, as Russia reportedly scrubbed the launch of the Progress MS-07 mission just seconds before it began lift-off. The mission was intended to deliver more than the mysterious contraption into orbit, of course, and was also slated to deliver 2.9 tons worth of fuel, food, water, and other supplies to the ISS. The mission was then successfully launched on Saturday, though Russia has still not released any information regarding what caused them to scrub the scheduled launch last week.
Russia had actually hoped to garner more attention to its space program following the Thursday launch, as they had also announced that they intended to set a new record for the amount of time required from launch to rendezvous with the space station as it flew overhead. They believed they could reach the space station in under three and a half hours using a combination of their powerful launch platform and specific timing of the launch to coordinate with the ISS high overhead, but now will have to settle for a two-and-a-half-day trip after its successful launch on Saturday. It is unknown, but unlikely, that the device mounted to the craft had anything to do with the planned trajectory.
The record-setting flight path would have only required a short two-orbit trip, which Russia intends to begin using with crewed Soyuz capsule launches as soon as this December. Astronauts from the United States are expected to take part in the new super-fast launch trajectory Russia hopes to begin employing, but like the mysterious device mounted on the ship, or the reason for the launch delay, Russia remains tight-lipped about whether or not a crewed effort at the high-speed rendezvous will still be attempted this year.
Although NASA did release an extensive press release regarding the specifics of the attempted two-orbit trajectory Russia had hoped to employ, they did not address the strange device seen mounted to the hull of the Progress MS-07 mission in the release regarding Saturday’s launch. Further, no further photographs have surfaced on the rescheduled launch that show the device, so it is possible that it was removed.
The location of the strange device would indicate that it could indeed be used for scientific analysis, as previous Russian missions have included different equipment mounted in the same area of the spacecraft. Like previous efforts, it seems likely the device would be intended to burn up upon reentry, meaning the extent of its purpose, whatever that may be, will be fulfilled during launch and its time in orbit above the earth.
Image courtesy of NASA