Satellite Debris Forces Space Station To Evade Threat Hours Before Collision Risk

A spacecraft attached to the International Space Station did an “emergency maneuver” to push the complex, which now houses six people, away from a threatening piece of space debris Oct. 27, the European Space Agency said in a statement.

A hand-sized shard of the Russian Cosmos-2251 satellite, which collided with a U.S. Iridium satellite in 2009, would have come within at least four kilometers (2.5 miles) of the orbiting outpost. This was close enough for the space station partners to agree to a move six hours before the potential impact.

“This is the first time the station’s international partners have avoided space debris with such urgency,” the European Space Agency wrote. The push to a safer orbit took place using the agency’s automated transfer vehicle Georges Lemaître, which docked with the space station in August.

The International Space Station in October 2014, with the European automated transfer vehicle Georges Lemaître attached. Credit: Alexander Gerst/ESA/NASA
The International Space Station in October 2014, with the European automated transfer vehicle Georges Lemaître attached. Credit: Alexander Gerst/ESA/NASA

While many collision threats are spotted at least days before impact, occasionally ground networks aren’t able to see a piece until 24 hours or less before the potential impact. Since 2012, the space station has normally done last-minute maneuvers using Russian cargo Progress vehicles, but this time around none were docked there. This is where the ATV came in.

Controllers at the ATV control center in France then did a four-minute preprogrammed move that raised the station’s orbit by one kilometer (0.6 miles), enough to get out of the way.

The ATV is expected to remain at the station until February, when it will undock and burn up in the atmosphere. This is the last of the series of ATVs that Europe agreed to make as a part of its space station agreement.

Amazing Telescopic Pictures Of The Space Station And A Cargo Ship Heading That Way

Here’s your morning photographic space delight: the International Space Station and the last European automated transfer vehicle (ATV), Georges Lemaître, taken using a camera and 10-inch Newtonian telescope.

The photographer, Ralf Vandebergh, captured these images as the ATV flew to the space station. The ATV launched flawlessly on July 30 and is expected to meet up with the station on Aug. 12. Check out pictures of the cargo vehicle below the jump.

The vehicle will stay docked to the space station for six months before making a planned re-entry in the atmosphere with a load of trash. The European Space Agency plans to track its fiery destruction to better design cargo vehicles in the future.

“The project is proceeding under our ‘Design for Demise’ effort to design space hardware in such a way that it is less likely to survive reentry and potentially endanger the public,”said Neil Murray, who is leading the project at the European Space Agency (ESA), in a July statement.

“Design for Demise in turn is part of the agency’s clean space initiative, seeking to render the space industry more environmentally friendly in space as well as on Earth.”

Pictures of the last European automated transfer vehicle going to the International Space Station in 2014. Pictures taken using a 10-inch Newtonian telescope and monochromatic camera. Credit: Ralf Vandebergh
Pictures of the last European automated transfer vehicle going to the International Space Station in 2014. Pictures taken using a 10-inch Newtonian telescope and monochromatic camera. Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

Rocket Replay: Watch Europe’s Last Space Station Automated Transfer Vehicle Soar

The last of Europe’s five automated transfer vehicles made a flawless launch to orbit yesterday (July 30). So far, all is going well with ATV Georges Lemaître as it brings a load of cargo to the International Space Station. You can watch the launch above. The ship is not only acting as a freighter, but a testbed for technology to help with docking and re-entry.

“It is with great pride that we saw the fifth successful launch of this beautiful spacecraft,” stated Thomas Reiter, the European Space Agency’s director of human spaceflight and operations, in a press release. “But the adventure doesn’t end here. ATV knowhow and technology will fly again to space as early as 2017, powering NASA’s Orion spacecraft with the European Service Module, ushering in the next generation of space exploration.”

It will take until Aug. 12 for the ATV to make its way to the space station. On its way, the vehicle will do a flyaround to test a laser infrared imaging sensor that could help future space vehicles dock with objects that don’t have docking ports.

Then it will stick on the space station for up to six months before making a planned re-entry, full of trash. In a first for Europe, how the ship breaks up will be carefully tracked to inform the design of future space vehicles that could survive re-entry. By the way, ESA has a stunning photo gallery of the rocket’s liftoff here, but we put a couple of samples below.

The Ariane 5 rocket carrying Europe's last automated transfer vehicle blasts off from French Guiana July 29, 2014. Credit: ESA-S. Corvaja
The Ariane 5 rocket carrying Europe’s last automated transfer vehicle blasts off from French Guiana July 29, 2014. Credit: ESA-S. Corvaja

Cargo Ship’s Fiery Demise Could Help Predict What Happens When The Space Station Burns Up

It’s sad to think about, but there will be a day sometime when the International Space Station makes its final journey — a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Historically, it’s been hard to break up large pieces of space hardware safely. Pieces of the Skylab space station famously rained down in Australia, while Mir’s demise triggered warnings across its re-entry path.

The European Space Agency sees an opportunity to gather more information for this future use: closely watching what happens when the final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Georges Lemaître, goes to the International Space Station and has its planned breakup in the atmosphere following the shipment.

They plan to record its last moments using a heat-seeking camera on the inside of the spacecraft. This sort of thing has been done before with NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, but this will be a first for ESA.

“The data should also hold broader value,” stated Neil Murray, who is leading the project at the European Space Agency (ESA).

“The project is proceeding under our ‘Design for Demise’ effort to design space hardware in such a way that it is less likely to survive reentry and potentially endanger the public. Design for Demise in turn is part of the agency’s clean space initiative, seeking to render the space industry more environmentally friendly in space as well as on Earth.”

The Automated Transfer Vehicle Albert Einstein burning up on Nov. 2, 2013 at 12:04 GMT over an uninhabitated part of the Pacific Ocean. This picture was snapped from the International Space Station. Credit: ESA/NASA
The Automated Transfer Vehicle Albert Einstein burning up on Nov. 2, 2013 at 12:04 GMT over an uninhabitated part of the Pacific Ocean. This picture was snapped from the International Space Station. Credit: ESA/NASA

The camera will ride inside, bolted to a rack, and transmit the last 20 seconds of its lifetime to a special Reentry Satcom capsule that is designed to survive the breakup. The data will in turn be sent to Earth using an Iridium satellite.

While the SatCom will be protected by a heatshield, the challenge will be transmitting the information through the plasma generated as it falls at 6 to 7 kilometers (3.7 to 4.3 miles) a second. The breakup will happen at 80 kilometers (50 miles) and the plasma will be there until below an altitude of about 40 kilometers (25 miles), ESA stated.

“The fall will generate high-temperature plasma around it, but signals from its omnidirectional antenna should be able to make it through any gap in the plasma to the rear,” the agency added.

Georges Lemaître is expected to launch later this month and last six months in space before re-entry.

Source: European Space Agency

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.

June 21 ATV Re-Entry: A Man-Made Fireball In The Sky

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The Johannes Kepler ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) has undocked from the International Space station and will re- enter Earth’s atmosphere on June 21st ending its mission in fiery destruction.

The ATV has been docked with the ISS since February, where it delivered supplies, acted as a giant waste disposal and boosted the orbit of the International Space Station with its engines.

The X-wing ATV delivered approximately 7 tonnes of supplies to the station and will be leaving with 1,200kg of waste bags, including unwanted hardware.

The Johannes Kepler ATV-2 approaches the International Space Station. Docking of the two spacecraft occurred on Feb. 24, 2011. Credit: NASA

On June 21st at 17:07 GMT the craft will fire its engines and begin its suicide mission, tumbling and burning up as a bright manmade fireball over the Pacific Ocean. Any leftover debris will strike the surface of the Pacific ocean at 20:50 GMT.

During the ATV’s re-entry and destruction there will be a prototype onboard flight recorder (Black Box) transmitting data to Iridium satellites, as some aspects of a controlled destructive entry are still not well known.

ESA says that this area is used for controlled reentries of spacecraft because it is uninhabited and outside shipping lanes and airplane routes. Extensive analysis by ESA specialists will ensure that the trajectory stays within safe limits.

There still are some chances to see the ISS and Johannes Kepler ATV passing over tonight, but if you in a location where you can see the south Pacific skies starting at about 20:00 GMT, keep an eye out for a glorious manmade fireball.

A shower of debris results as the ATV continues its plunge through the atmosphere. Credit: ESA

Read more about the re-entry at ESA.