European cargo spaceship plunges to its doom

Image: ATV-3
The European Space Agency's Edoardo Amaldi ATV-3 spacecraft was seen in orbit by the Tracking and Imaging Radar operated by the Fraunhofer FHR institute in Wachtberg, Germany, on Monday during an imaging test.TIRA / Fraunhofer-FHR
/ Source: NBC News

An unmanned European cargo craft the size of a bus burned up during atmospheric re-entry on Tuesday, four days after undocking from the International Space Station with a load of trash.

The six-month supply mission of the Edoardo Amaldi Automated Transfer Vehicle 3, also known as ATV-3, ended as planned with a plunge from orbit over the Pacific Ocean, the European Space Agency reported.

Telemetry from the spacecraft was lost at 9:23 p.m. ET Tuesday (3:23 a.m. CEST Wednesday), according to an ESA blog following the re-entry. The Aerospace Corp.'s William Ailor was quoted as saying data was being received from a flight recorder that re-entered with the ATV-3.

The craft was sent into orbit in March from ESA's launch center in the South American country of French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket. It delivered more than seven tons of food, water and other supplies to the space station.

After the station's crew unloaded the supplies, the ATV-3 was used as a receptacle for the station's trash. Last week's scheduled departure was delayed by a communication glitch and an orbital-debris alert, but the ATV-3 finally undocked from the station at 5:44 p.m. ET Friday (11:44 p.m. CEST).

During the days that followed, the craft was maneuvered into position for its fiery descent through the atmosphere. Observers around the world snapped pictures of the ATV-3 passing overhead; some telescopic images even made out the craft's X-wing-shaped solar arrays.

ESA said any debris from the ATV's breakup should have fallen harmlessly into a remote area of the Pacific.

After re-entry, ESA mission manager Jean-Michel Bois said "all objectives of the mission were achieved."

"Everybody is happy here," Bois said in a statement issued from the ATV control center in Toulouse, France. "For sure it's the end of a rare technical and human adventure, with hours spent in the control center, nights and days, to monitor this incredible vehicle. Such a complex and successful mission is a major event in professional career."

The Edoardo Amaldi ATV-3, named after an Italian cosmic-ray physicist, was the third European cargo spaceship to link up with the space station. The fourth ATV, named after Albert Einstein, is due for launch next February.