Need an antidote to the saccharine nature of today? We have a breakup dramatic enough to be visible across Europe to sooth your curmudgeonly soul. The very last of the European Space Agency’s ATV cargo space tugs in on course for a fiery breakup perfect for the most dramatic of Valentine’s Day traditions.
The last smokey traces of ATV Georges Lemaître as it burns in a destructive reentry. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
The European Space Agency’s ATV cargo tugs have completed five cargo delivery runs to the International Space Station since 2008, all of them ending in fiery destruction as they burn up during reentry. The ATVs were surprisingly spacious, large enough to hold a double-decker bus within its hull. The program is now at an end, although the basic design will live on as the inspiration for the Orion spacecraft’s service module.
The International Space Station [left, bright] and ESA’s ATV [right, faint] as seen from Bavaria, Germany the night before its demise. Image credit: Andreas Wunder
Georges Lemaître, the fifth and final ATV, undocked from the space station yesterday with a full load of garbage. Today, it is on route for a destructive reentry, leaving a streak of flame across the evening skies of Europe. (As Calli Arcale points out, the actual burnup is on Sunday afternoon, which is poetically most unsatisfying so we’ll be ignoring that facet of reality.)
This has to be the tidiest pile of garbage ever. Image credit: NASA/ESA
Even the timing of the departure is ideal for counteracting sentimentality: with a departure when the station was in the Earth’s shadow, after years of faithful delivery service the final ATV left with no chance of a final portrait.
The flashing lights are the exhaust jets from the cargo carrier. You can watch the full departure sequence here as filmed from the Space Station by NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore:
And yet in delicious, destructive contrast, the breakup will be documented in extensive detail. The capsule had an onboard camera designed to record the reentry in all its flaming glory.
The breakup camera records destructive reentry, not relationship mishaps. Image credit: NASA/ESA
Originally, the plan was to have additional cameras on board. Instead, ESA is providing the only camera after NASA decided to hold its Re-entry Break-up Recorder for a shallower reentry, while JAXA’s second reentry-recording i-Ball was lost during the Antares explosion. While ESA hasn’t told us their plan for when they’re going to release the breakup footage, it’s bound to happen eventually, and when it does, it should be spectacular!
After departing form the space station, the ATV completed several orbits of the Earth before beginning its deorbit boosts. The end was fast: in just 17 minutes, the spacecraft went from starting its deorbiting burns to its final command.
While the final moments of destruction were eulogized live by the ESA ground team, the astronauts on the space station stared out the window to catch one last peek before the spacecraft burnt up over the Pacific Ocean.
With the departure of theSpaceX Dragon and now ESA’s ATV, the space station is down to just the two Soyuz capsules that carried the Expedition 42 astronauts to the station, and a Progress 57 cargo carrier. This is quite a contrast to when all ports were full to the brim just a few months ago!
A pair of Soyuz crew transport vehicles are just about the only spacecraft left docked to the station! Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts
Space Station configuration on February 14, 2015. Image credit: NASA
As for ATV control center? Half the team had colds, yet no one stayed home from the last day of work and to watch the telemetry as Georges Lemaître completed its final big dive into the thick atmosphere of home. After the craft broke up on schedule at 18:04 GMT, a voice on a loop instructed them, “You are GO to switch off the control centre,” they celebrated, hugged, then slowly filtered out of the room, leaving it dark for the fifth and final time.