Swiss-made camera heads to ISS before burning up

An Artist’s view of ATV-5’s destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean European Space Agency

A camera made by Swiss space technology company RUAG is on board the European space freighter that will be launched on Wednesday. The camera will record the combustion of the unmanned transporter when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

This content was published on July 29, 2014 - 16:46 and agencies

An Ariane 5 rocket will set off on July 30 External linkto carry the last of the five European Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) to the International Space Station (ISS). The ATV, named “Georges Lemaître”, is set to dock with the ISS’s Russian Zvezda module on August 12.

The transporter will deliver a total of 6.6 tonnes of cargo to the ISS, bringing scientific equipment and fuel for the station as well as food and water for the astronauts on board.

The ATV will remain docked with the ISS for around six months. During that time, the ATV will not only function as a storage area but will also use its engines to help the ISS – which slows and sinks towards Earth over time – to accelerate again and reach a higher orbit.

At the end of its service life, “Georges Lemaître” will become a cosmic waste incinerator. The astronauts will fill their rubbish into the ATV, which will then undock and burn up upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Providing insights

The Swiss infrared camera, dubbed the ATV Breakup Camera, will record this re-entry into the atmosphere. It will document how the interior structure heats up before frictional heat and air resistance cause the craft to break and burn up. The camera will maintain a feed of images to a communication unit up until the point at which the camera itself is destroyed.

This unit is encased in a spherical ceramic shield that will protect it from the extreme heat. Before this ceramic ball plunges into the ocean, the unit inside will transmit the video footage to Earth via the Iridium network of communications satellites. RUAG Space will collaborate with the federal technology institute ETH Zurich to evaluate the images.

The researchers expect the video footage to provide insight into what happens when a large spacecraft breaks up. The knowledge gained will help engineers to build large spacecraft and satellites in such a way that they burn up completely upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their service lives.

Zurich-based RUAG Space not only supplied the camera but also built a complex aluminium structure for the ATV’s propulsion module, eight cargo racks and a computer that oversees the safety of the autonomous docking manoeuvre.

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