Spaceflight Now Home

Mission Reports

For 12 years, Spaceflight Now has been providing unrivaled coverage of U.S. space launches. Comprehensive reports and voluminous amounts of video are available in our archives.
Space Shuttle
Atlas | Delta | Pegasus
Minotaur | Taurus | Falcon


Sign up for our NewsAlert service and have the latest space news e-mailed direct to your desktop.

Enter your e-mail address:

Privacy note: your e-mail address will not be used for any other purpose.


Space Books

Fourth ATV mission ends in fireball over Pacific Ocean

Posted: November 2, 2013

Five days after ending its mission at the International Space Station, a European logistics carrier plummeted back to Earth over the remote South Pacific Ocean on Saturday, disposing of nearly 2.4 tons of trash and liquid waste in a stream of glowing plasma visible from the orbiting complex.

Artist's concept of an Automated Transfer Vehicle during re-entry. Credit: ESA
Video cameras aboard the space station captured footage of the Automated Transfer Vehicle's demise, showing the 32-foot-long freighter disintegrating over the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Chile.

Astronauts on the station also took still images of the re-entry, which were expected to be downlinked later Saturday.

Engineers at the ATV control center in Toulouse, France, received the last radio signals from the spacecraft at 1204 GMT (8:04 a.m. EDT) after the vehicle lost control and began tumbling.

Officials expected most of the massive spacecraft to burn up during re-entry, but the trajectory aimed for a desolate stretch of sea to ensure surviving fragments fell safely away from populated areas.

Like most of the space station's international fleet of supply vehicles, the ATV is designed to end its mission with a destructive re-entry, eliminating the outpost's garbage in a fiery finale.

Launched June 5 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the ATV spent 134 days attached to the space station, delivering tons of supplies including food, experiments, electronics, spare parts, rocket fuel, water and oxygen.

The ATV was also responsible for maintaining the space station's orbit since its arrival at the complex June 15, steering it clear of space debris and boosting its altitude to counteract atmospheric drag.

The spacecraft was named for Albert Einstein, the German-born physicist and father of the theory of general relativity. It was the fourth of five ATVs financed by the European Space Agency to pay for Europe's share of the space station's operating costs.

ESA says each ATV mission costs about 450 million euros, or about $620 million. Including its cargo load, ATV 4 was the heaviest spacecraft ever built in Europe.

Controllers monitor the ATV's final moments in Toulouse, France. Credit: ESA
"The mission went perfectly, which for me and the ATV team or any space mission is a great thing," said Alberto Novelli, ATV 4 mission manager. "The smooth running of this fourth mission shows the maturity of the ATV program and puts ESA's successful track record on the map for future projects."

Since the ATV undocked from the space station Monday, mission controllers in Toulouse guided the spaceship through engine burns to put the resupply craft directly below the outpost Saturday.

In a demonstration of complicated orbital choreography, the maneuvers lowered the ATV's orbit and allowed the cargo craft to fly under the space station at the time of its final braking burn a few minutes before it plunged into the atmosphere.

Objects in lower orbits travel at faster speeds than satellites above them, so timing was essential to put the re-entry in view of the space station.

The maneuvers replicated a similar feat accomplished by Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle in early September, which aligned its orbit with the space station's to permit re-entry photography from above.

Europe's last Automated Transfer Vehicle arrived at its French Guiana launch site Tuesday to begin flight preparations. Over the next few months, technicians will mate the ATV's pressurized cargo carrier and service module, load the spacecraft with supplies and propellant, and attach the ship to its Ariane 5 launcher.

Liftoff of ATV 5, named for Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaitre, is scheduled for late June 2014.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.