27 Sep 2008

Space freighter may crash into South Pacific

7:26 pm on 27 September 2008

Scientists have earmarked a remote area of the South Pacific where bits of Europe's space freighter may crash when the orbiting craft is destroyed early next week.

The European Space Agency says about 100 parts of the 13.5-tonne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) may survive the fiery heat and stress of re-entry and splash down in pieces.

The 2,700km long splashdown zone is located about 2,500km east of New Zealand.

The agency says it has notified the competent bodies in order to prevent ships and airplanes going through the area during the re-entry phase.

Measuring 10 metres in length and with nearly the volume of a large shipping container, the robot craft was sent aloft in April on a one-way trip.

It docked automatically with the International Space Station, bringing 7.5 tonnes of equipment, water and air to its three-man crew.

It was then filled up with rubbish from the space station before detaching on 6 September.

It is now in a holding orbit to position itself for re-entry, in which it will be deliberately sent on a steep trajectory that causes maximum friction with the atmosphere, helping it to break apart and burn.

Even though most of the ATV is expected to melt after reentry, up to 100 parts could crash into the ocean.

Two observation planes, taking off from Tahiti, will monitor the re-entry, which will also take place directly below the space station.

The craft, named Jules Verne, after the French forerunner of science fiction, is Europe's costliest contribution to the ISS.

The biggest controlled destruction from orbit was the much bigger 135-tonne Soviet-Russian space station Mir, on 23 March 2001, also over the South Pacific.

The next ATV mission is planned for 2010.