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Europe's "space truck" heads for Pacific breakup

by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Sept 26, 2008
Scientists have earmarked a remote area of the South Pacific where bits of Europe's massive space freighter may crash when the orbiting craft is destroyed in a suicide plunge on Monday, an official said on Friday.

The "entry zone" is a strip 2,700 kilometres (1,700 miles) long by 200 kms (120 miles) wide, Mike Steinkopf, in charge of the operation at European Space Agency (ESA) mission control in Toulouse, southwestern France, told AFP.

Around a hundred 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 in this remote sea area, said Steinkopf.

The entry zone is located about 2,500 kms (1,500 miles) east of New Zealand, 6,000 kms (3,750 miles) west of Chile and 2,500 kms (1,500 miles) south of the Easter Islands.

"We [have] notified the competent bodies in order to prevent ships and airplanes going through this area during the re-entry phase," he said.

Measuring 10 metres (32.5 feet) 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-men crew.

The ATV was filled up with the ISS's trash before detaching on September 6.

It was then placed 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.

The first manoeuvre to decelerate the ATV will take place on Monday between 1000 and 1006 GMT, according to plans likely to be reviewed on Sunday, said Steinkopf.

A second manoeuvre will follow at 1258 GMT.

At 1313 GMT, the ATV is scheduled to enter the atmosphere, 120 kilometers (75 miles) above the Earth. At 1331 GMT, any surviving pieces will splash down.

"We expect that the ATV will disintegrate after reentry. Most of the parts will melt because of the high temperatures of about 1,500 degrees [Celsius, 2,912 degrees Fahrenheit] and the high pressure," said Steinkopf.

"But up to 30 percent of the parts might crash into the ocean, i.e. up to 100 parts. We cannot say exactly how big they are going to be. Our simulation models showed that the biggest parts might be between 10 and 500 kilogrammes (22 to 1,200 pounds)."

Two observation planes, taking off from Tahiti, will monitor the re-entry, which will also take place directly below the ISS. As the station is in low orbit of around 350 kilometres (220 miles), its crew should be able to film and take pictures, said Steinkopf.

Designed and built for 1.3 billion euros (1.885 billion dollars), the craft, named Jules Verne, after the French forerunner of science fiction, is Europe's costliest contribution to the ISS.

It will be followed by four more cargo ships, whose assembly and launch will each cost over 300 million euros (435 million dollars). The next ATV mission is planned for 2010.

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

"You cannot compare" the two operations, said Steinkopf. "Mir was much bigger, but the principle is the same."

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Russia's Space Agency Confirms 18th ISS Expedition
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Sep 24, 2008
Russia's Space Agency confirmed Tuesday the composition of the main crew for the 18th International Space Station expedition.







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