European Spaceship's Death Plunge Caught on Film
This is one of the first images taken by the DC-8 aircraft which observed the re-entry of Jules Verne ATV over the Pacific Ocean.
Credit: ESA

GLASGOW, Scotland — Europe's unmanned space cargo vehicle successfully reentered the atmosphere over the south Pacific Ocean Sept. 29, breaking up into dozens of fragments that fell into the ocean along a pre-selected path that had been cleared of maritime traffic, European Space Agency (ESA) officials said.

Program managers expect that photographic data from two aircraft ESA hired from NASA, and an imager aboard the international space station flying overhead at the time, will provide precise data on the amount of debris that survived reentry.

The agency released pictures of the reentry Sept. 29 that had been taken from one of the NASA planes. The photos showed what they said was ATV as it burned up into several pieces. The reentry had been planned to occur at night to facilitate photography of the event.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) undocked from the space station Sept. 5 and then was guided into position under the station. It had been launched March 9 to deliver food, water, fuel and supplies to the station.

ESA contracted with NASA to lease two specially fitted aircraft, a Gulfstream 5 and a DC-8, to be in the vicinity of the predicted atmospheric reentry.

ATV managers had estimated that the vehicle, which had been filled with garbage from the space station before undocking, would weigh about 13,400 kilograms on reentry into the atmosphere at an altitude of about 120 kilometers. Simulation studies concluded that it would break up into some 600 pieces weighing between 10 and 150 kilograms each. Of these, several dozen were expected to survive the descent and to fall into the ocean.

By comparison, Russia's Mir space station weighed more than 100,000 kilograms when it reentered the atmosphere, also in the South Pacific, in 2001.

ATV controllers had advised maritime authorities in the region that a no-go zone measuring 2,700 kilometers long and 200 kilometers wide should be established.

ESA is expected to ask its 17 member governments in November for funds to enhance ATV so that it is capable of surviving reentry to return space station cargo.

Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA's director of human spaceflight, said the successful completion of the ATV mission should help persuade ESA governments that it is worth 200 million euros ($300 million) to transform ATV from a one-way asset into a vehicle capable of returning several hundred kilograms of experiments back to Earth.

"The hardest part of the ATV mission had already been accomplished with the rendezvous and docking with the station," Di Pippo said here at the International Astronautical Congress. "But we still needed to demonstrate the full mission capability. We have now done that today."