ESA’s ATV Program Ends With Fiery Reentry; Focus Shifts to Orion

ATV-5 departs the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
ATV-5 departs the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

PARIS (ESA PR) — ESA’s fifth automated cargo ferry completed its mission to the International Space Station today when it reentered the atmosphere and burned up safely over an uninhabited area of the southern Pacific Ocean.

The end of the mission as the craft broke up as planned at about 18:04 GMT (19:04 CET) marks the end of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) programme. The programme has served the Station with the most complex space vehicle ever developed in Europe, achieving five launches in six years following its 2008 debut.

ATVs delivered more than 31 500 kg of supplies over the course of their five missions. They boosted the Station to raise its orbit numerous times and similarly moved it out of the way of space debris.

The vehicles demonstrated European mastering of automated docking, a technology that is vital for further space exploration.

This last ATV, Georges Lemaître, set the record for the heaviest Ariane 5 launch when it climbed into space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 29 July 2014.

Before undocking, the Station crew loaded it with waste material, freeing up space on the weightless research centre.

The European cargo ship undocked on 14 February at 13:40 GMT (14:40 CET) and manoeuvred itself into a safe descent trajectory.

ATV was conceived in 1987, when ideas for an international space station to succeed Russia’s Mir complex were beginning to surface. In 1994, ESA and Russia discussed the possibility of using the vehicle for a new station. The decision to build it was taken in October 1995 and development began the following year.

The ATV programme was part of a barter arrangement between ESA and its international partners through which ESA pays its share of the running costs of the International Space Station by supplying vital equipment and systems.

The spacecraft formed part of the Station’s supply fleet, alongside Russia’s Progress and Soyuz, Japan’s HII Transfer Vehicle and America’s Dragon and Cygnus commercial ferries.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft seen during Exploration Mission 1, expected in the late 2010s, will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using the European Service Module, developed on the heritage of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV).

NASA's Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)
NASA’s Orion with the European Service Module (Credit: ESA–D. Ducros)

The knowledge gained by ESA and European industry from designing, building and operating the complex ATV missions has been instrumental for ESA’s participation in NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will fly astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

ESA’s industrial partners are already building the European Service Module, ATV’s technical successor, a critical module for Orion that will supply power, air and propulsion during the test flight in 2017.

“It is with a feeling of pride that we look back at our accomplishments on the ATV programme,” says Thomas Reiter, Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations.

“We look forward to applying the experience and knowledge we gained from designing, building and operating five ATV spacecraft with excellent results to future exploration missions using the successor European Service Module of the Orion vehicle.”