An unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying tons of supplies for astronauts on the International Space Station suffered a major malfunction after launching today (Aug. 24) and ultimately crashed back to Earth, NASA officials say.

The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday. [Photo of the Progress 44 launch]

"Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly," NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. "The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation."

A video of the Progress cargo ship launch shows the vehicle soaring into a clear blue sky. It is the second launch failure within a week for Russia's space program.

Progress 44 was packed with about 2.9 tons of food, fuel and supplies for the space station, which is currently home to six astronauts representing the United States, Russia and Japan.

"At the time of launch, the space station was flying 230 miles over Equatorial Guinea on the west coast of Africa," NASA officials said.

Russia's Soyuz rockets and Progress spacecraft have long track record of reliability. They have been hauling cargo to the International Space Station since the first crew took up residence in 2001.

The Progress cargo ships resemble the country's three-module Soyuz capsules that carry cosmonauts and astronauts into orbit. However, Progress vehicles carry a fuel pod in place of a crew module in order to replenish the space station's supplies.

This is the second Russian spacecraft to be lost during launch in six days. On Aug. 18, the $300 million Russian communications satellites Express AM4 failed to reach the proper orbit after it blasted off atop a Proton rocket, a different model than the booster carrying Progress 44.

That satellite was later found drifting in the wrong orbit, according to Russian space officials.

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