November 3, 2013
ESA's ATV-4 Albert Einstein. Credit: ESA/NASA
ESA's unmanned cargo ship ATV-4, better known by the name Albert Einstein, ended its five-month mission by burning up over the southern Pacific Ocean.
Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) are complex space vehicles, the best of what Europe has to offer. They are also the largest resupply ships to dock with the ISS, with Albert Einstein (ATV-4) weighing 20 tonnes and delivering almost 2.5 tonnes of cargo. ATV-4's mission consisted of delivering the cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and freeing the space on the station by taking over its waste.
Albert Einstein's mission began on June 5 this year with the launch from French Guiana, carried by Ariane 5 rocket. Ten days later, it docked with the ISS. The docking procedure was automated. While it was docked, ATV-4 also performed six re-boosts of the station's orbit, keeping it from falling back to Earth.
"The mission went perfectly, which for me and the ATV team or any space mission is a great thing," says Alberto Novelli, ATV-4 mission manager. "The smooth running of this fourth mission shows the maturity of the ATV programme and puts ESA's successful track record on the map for future projects."
With NASA's space shuttle programme ending in 2011, ATV missions are significant because the ISS needs to be resupplied on regular basis. For ESA, this is the way to pay their rent – the costs of running the Columbus laboratory module and its set of experiments ranging from experiments on micro-organisms, small plants and insects to experiments with the focus on strange behaviour of weightless liquids.
Albert Einstein is the fourth out of five ATVs. The last one is named after Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître, set for launch in June 2014. After its hopefully successful mission, ESA will have covered their share of costs for using the station through to the end of 2017.
Also worth noting is that even in the process of its demise, ATV-4 provided valuable information on reentry physics. In order to do this, Albert Einstein performed a series of manoeuvres to reenter the Earth's upper atmosphere 100 km right below the ISS. This made the spacecraft's fragmentation easier for astronauts to observe.
"To close the mission with such a delicate but spectacular operation is a fitting end to all the hard work of the people involved," adds Jean-Michel Bois, leader of the operations team at the control centre in Toulouse, France.