Photographer Catches ATV-4’s Fiery Plunge Through the Atmosphere

UPDATE: Editor’s note: Here’s a story that we’ve updated a couple of times, and now it ultimately has a happy ending. We originally posted a picture from Oliver Broadie who thought he captured an image of the ATV-4 Albert Einstein right before it burned up in the atmosphere. That image, see below, was ultimately determined to be of the International Space Station and not the ATV-4, so yesterday we pulled the image and explained why. But now, thanks to a great discussion between the photographer and satellite tracker Marco Langbroek (see it in the comment section), they have determined that Oliver actually did capture the ATV-4 in a subsequent image taken about 4 minutes later. Thanks to both Ollie and Marco for analyzing the timing and images. Also, we were in error for saying that the image showed the ATV-4 burning up in the atmosphere. That was my mistake (Nancy).

And you can now actually see images of ATV-4’s fiery plunge taken by the ISS astronauts here — Nancy Atkinson, Senior Editor.

Universe Today reader Oliver Broadie captured this shot of the International Space Station, shot from Sukhothai, Thailand. Just a few minutes later, the ATV-4 flew by at a lower altitude. Credit: Oliver Broadie
Universe Today reader Oliver Broadie captured this shot of the International Space Station, shot from Sukhothai, Thailand. Just a few minutes later, the ATV-4 flew by at a lower altitude. Credit: Oliver Broadie

Each Automated Transfer Vehicle series ferries cargo to the International Space Station, stays attached for a few months to do routine boosts to the station’s altitude, then leaves with a haul of trash to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

ATV-4 Albert Einstein backs away from the space station after five months in space. It burned up in the Earth's atmosphere Nov. 2, 2013. Credit: ESA/NASA
ATV-4 Albert Einstein backs away from the space station after five months in space. It burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere Nov. 2, 2013. Credit: ESA/NASA

Albert Einstein carried a record 5,467 pounds (2,480 kg) of cargo for its type of vehicle and also brought away the most garbage of the series of vehicles. It did six reboosts of the ISS’ altitude and among its precious cargo was a GPS antenna for Japan’s Kibo laboratory as well as a water pump for Europe’s Columbus laboratory, according to the European Space Agency.

The cargo ship undocked from the space station on Oct. 28 after five months in space. It burned up Nov. 2 at 12:04 GMT within sight of the astronauts. The next of the series, Georges Lemaitre, is in French Guiana for a launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket that will take place in June 2014.

The ATVs are just one of many space trucks that visit the International Space Station. Check out this recent article on cargo ships past and present to see other ones that ferry stuff into space.

18 Replies to “Photographer Catches ATV-4’s Fiery Plunge Through the Atmosphere”

  1. Good catch Oliver! I count something like 7 jet contrails(?) in that second image… A busy planet below eh? Don’t hit anything on the way down!

    1. Thanks Aqua4U,
      Until this article I didn’t know what time it went down. Turns out it was just 29 minutes later.

      1. Not to spoil your party (and I really like the picture), but your image does *not* show ATV-4.
        It shows the International Space Station (ISS) which passed at 11:36 UT (18:36 local time, near the time mentioned in the article) as seen from Sukhotai on a trajectory compatible with the image.
        ATV-4 would pass 5 minutes later, and at a lower elevation, ‘below’ Venus (the bright object in the image), not above it. I am sorry.

      2. I initially suspected as much, so I went to the source image and enlarged it, thinking the ATV-4 might’ve been in there somewheres? (Not) Never-the-less, I still like this image and applaud anyone who takes the time to look for the ISS or who even looks up at the stars!

      3. Hi Oliver,

        My first tweet comment was after a very cursory check only, where I looked at the ATV-4 ground track only. Seeing it was within minutes of passing within view of Thailand I initially thought your photo might indeed show the ATV. Which goes to show that your mistake is one easy to make, so no blame to you!
        However, directly after that I got suspicious as I realized the ISS must have been near (I knew there was an attempt to film the re-entry from the ISS). Your image (which is very fine! Nothing wrong with that!) looks quite like a typical ISS pass image (ISS is a very bright object). So I checked the ISS position as well. It matched the time you reported with your image even better than ATV-4.
        So my suspicion that you actually imaged the ISS grew. Next I checked the actual sky trajectories with respect to the stars as they would be from Sukhothai. Those made very clear it was the ISS, not ATV-4: the trail on your image matches the sky trajectory of the ISS for ~11:36 UT (18:36 local time). It does not match that of ATV, which passed lower in the sky some 4 minutes later.
        Here are plots of the sky trajectories as seen from Sukhothai:

        ISS:
        http://i19.photobucket.com/albums/b176/marcoaliaslama/ISS_Sukhotai_2nov1136UT_zps85722df4.png

        ATV:
        http://i19.photobucket.com/albums/b176/marcoaliaslama/ATV4_sukhotai_2nov1140UT_zpse927b059.png

        Especially note the trail positions with respect to Venus, which is also on your image.

        Here is a map of the ISS and ATV positions at 11:35 UT (one minute before your image):
        http://i19.photobucket.com/albums/b176/marcoaliaslama/ISS_ATV4_2nov1135UT_zps4ad15647.png

        I used orbital elements for the date in question directly from USSTRATCOM and prediction software on my own pc.

      4. Hi Marco,

        Thank you so much for taking the time to explain. It would seem that the times on http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/view.cfm?country=Thailand&region=None&city=Bangkok#.UnnWgPlmiSo
        are not as accurate as the info you have. It would be interesting to see if the one from last night (GMT + 7) listed from Bangkok is accurate with the data you have there.

        Wed Nov 6, 5:28 AM< 1 min12°10 above SSE12 above SE

        I have searched the images as you suggest but I can't find a trace of the ATV however please see what you think of these. The first is the ISS exiting left at 18:36:59 and the 2nd is on a parallel but lower trajectory at 18:38:01. It's very faint but you can see it. This does not gel with your 5 minute gap but it's a hell of a coincidence. This is exactly where the ATV should be but not for another 4 minutes. My data said there was a two minute gap but that's from the time we can first see them. I'd love to hear your thoughts. This is fascinating to me. 🙂

      5. I think that (the faint trail) is it (=ATV-4!)! The trajectory is right and most importantly I cannot match it to another object.

        It is then too early by some 2 minutes, BUT: ATV-4 did a retrofire burn at 11:28 UT, 10 minutes before your imagery above. This means that in the 10 minutes before your image, it will have significantly lowered its orbit already compared to the orbital elements I used (which pre-date the retrofire burn and are the last available). In a lower orbit, it is going faster: so it will start to appear ‘too early’ with reference to pre-retrofire orbital elements.

        For this reason I *do* think the faint trail on your images in a trajectory parallel but below the ISS, actually *is* ATV-4! 🙂

        It is not truely re-entering yet on your images (i.e. not burning up yet) but it is on it’s way down following retrorocket firing at 11:28 UT.

      6. Brilliant! So I do have an image of the ATV-4 after all. Just not the one I thought. Not quite as impressive as the ISS but something none-the-less. (TICK) Thank you once again for all your time on this Marco. I am very grateful. 🙂

      7. Hi Marco, did you post this on twitter before or after your post above “This actually might be ATV-4. Pass time is correct, sun at -16 deg. It is during retrofire, so before reentry” ?

      8. Nothing passed lower than Venus any time later. I was continuously shooting into the night in that spot for the Milky Way. This shot was exactly 5 min later.

  2. This image does NOT show ATV-4, but the International Space Station (ISS) which passed at 11:36 UT (near the time mentioned in the article) as seen from Sukhotai on a trajectory compatible with the image.
    ATV-4 would pass 5 minutes later, and at a lower elevation, ‘below’ Venus (the bright object in the image), not above it. Note that ATV-4 did not reenter untill half an hour after this image (which, again, does not show ATV-4 but the ISS) was taken anyway.

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