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Freighter destroyed over Pacific

29 September 08 15:13 GMT
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Europe's "Jules Verne" space freighter has destroyed itself in a controlled burn-up over the southern Pacific.

The 13.5-tonne cargo ship had completed a six-month mission to the space station and was packed with the orbiting platform's rubbish.

Two engine firings were required to slow the freighter sufficiently to pull it into the atmosphere.

The European and US space agencies had chase planes in the air to try to capture the fireball on video.

Astronauts on the space station reported seeing the light from the falling freighter.

"Everything went correctly, nominally, smoothly. This was the last section of the chain," said Simonetta di Pippo, head of human spaceflight at the European Space Agency (Esa).

Most of the vehicle was expected to burn up in the descent; only fragments should have made it down to the ocean water. Computer modelling of the re-entry had put the impact time at 1346 GMT.

Events were overseen from Esa's freighter control centre in Toulouse, France.

John Ellwood, the agency's vehicle project manager, said all the data would need to be assessed before it was known conclusively how the re-entry went; but the early indications were that everything had proceeded as expected.

And summing up the past six months, he told BBC News: "It's been a fantastic ride; everything has worked nominally. Although there are mixed emotions at the end, there is a lot of satisfaction after having had such a fantastic mission."

Jules Verne - also known by the generic name Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) - cost about 1.3bn euros to develop.

Although Esa has produced many complex scientific satellites, none match the scale of the freighter.

After launch, the space truck can work out where it needs to go in space, and then makes a fully automatic docking once it arrives at its destination.

It was developed as part of Esa's ISS membership agreement, to haul cargo, propellant, water and oxygen to the space station; and also to provide propulsion capacity at the station.

But such has been the performance of Jules Verne that Esa officials and industry chiefs are already talking about upgrading the ship's design - potentially to carry astronauts.

The first step, however, would be to develop technologies that enable the safe return of cargo to Earth.

European space ministers will discuss the issue at their meeting in The Hague in November.

Under the agreement Esa has with its international partners, at least four more ATVs will be flown to the space station in the coming years. The next is due to launch in 2010.

And, ultimately, it is likely that an ATV will be tasked with destroying the space station when the partners have decided the platform is beyond servicing, perhaps towards the end of the next decade.

A freighter will be commanded to drive the whole structure into a similar region of the south Pacific.

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