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Fiery end completes successful mission for ATV Albert Einstein

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Nov 2, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—After boosting the International Space Station's orbit six times and delivering several tons of supplies, Europe's ATV-4 named Albert Einstein completed its mission with one final burn towards Earth -- a journey that saw the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) disintegrate as planned over the Pacific Ocean.

Albert Einstein, the fourth of five planned ATVs, finished up its "perfect mission" earlier today as the space station crew watched the spacecraft making its way through the atmosphere. From his perch on the station, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano reported on the voice loop: "It was quite spectacular ... the show is over."

"A small selection of ATV-4’s cargo includes experiments on emulsions that will help industry to create foods and pharmaceuticals with longer shelf-lives, a replacement water pump for Europe’s Columbus laboratory, a new water recycler for NASA, a GPS antenna for Japan’s Kibo laboratory and 3D-printed space toolboxes," the European Space Agency added.

ATVs are one of a series of cargo ships that visit the space station and take unneeded equipment away. Since the ATV is not designed to withstand the journey back to Earth, astronauts took the opportunity to fill the spaceship with a record amount of waste and to allow more room for other cargo aboard the orbiting complex.

Albert Einstein weighed in at 20 tonnes with 1,400 individual items on board, making it the heaviest cargo to date loaded on to an Ariane 5 rocket. The launch took place on June 5, with the docking occurring 10 days later.

Besides bringing cargo to the station, the ATV carried extra fuel to perform routine boosts to the space station's altitude. Since the station runs into stray gas molecules in orbit, its speed slows and it loses altitude. The boosts are required to maintain the station's orbit.

Before the spacecraft returned to Earth, controllers manoeuvred it so that it would re-enter within view of the astronauts. While the view was a bonus to the six people on board, the scientific purpose of this was "to observe the spacecraft’s fragmentation in the upper atmosphere, providing unique information on reentry physics," ESA stated.

Operations during the five-month mission were flawless, paving the way for the next ATV.  The fifth ATV named Georges Lemaître is already at French Guiana, the European spaceport where the vehicles launch. Cargo will be added to the spacecraft around March 2014, and the spacecraft is expected to leave Earth aboard an Ariane rocket at the end of June 2014.

ESA added that the five vehicles meant that the agency has "paid its dues" for the program through to 2017. Each of the space station-faring nations are allocated astronaut flights as well as experiment time based on their contributions to the complex. With ESA's space station modules and automated cargo ships, this means lots of work available for the newest group of European astronauts, who call themselves "the Shenanigans." Parmitano is the first of that group to fly.