This was the view from the International Space Station as the European Automated Transfer Vehicle "Albert Einstein" (ATV-4) undocked and began five days of orbital maneuvers before reentry on Nov. 2. The unmanned cargo vehicle had been docked to the space station for five months after delivering seven tons of food, supplies and equipment to the orbiting outpost in June. Filled with trash and unwanted equipment, the ATV became a high-tech waste disposal system on Oct. 28 as it began its reentry procedure. These are some of the spectacular views as seen by space station astronauts as the ATV slammed into the Earth's atmosphere.
The descending ATV-4 slowly approaching its reentry demise against the backdrop of Earth -- two commercial jetliners and their contrails can be seen.
From the space station astronauts perspective, the ATV can be seen interacting with the Earth's atmosphere some 62 miles (100 kilometers) directly below. Pieces of the ATV are ripped away by extreme stresses and begin to burn up.
The main mass of the ATV burns brightly during reentry over an unpopulated region of the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 2.
Resembling a meteor, the main mass of the ATV succumbs to the extreme heating and dynamic stresses as it tumbles through the atmosphere.
The remaining mass of the ATV breaks up, scattering pieces as the spacecraft lights up the skies over the Pacfic Ocean.
After the European Space Agency (ESA) lost radio communications with its Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite late on Sunday, the outcome was clear — the gravity probe had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. What was less certain, however, was where the spacecraft had burned up.
The mystery of GOCE’s reentry has now been solved — the one-ton satellite came down over the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory, 300 miles east of the Patagonian coast in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Falklands resident Bill Chater took to Twitter to report seeing GOCE’s reentry. “We saw it burn up from the Falklands at about 9.20pm last night. Came from the South breaking up into bits,” he said. The accompanying photo appears to show the trail of smoky debris high in the twilight sky over East Falklands.
Describing what he saw to the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, Chater continued: “Driving southwards at dusk, it appeared with bright smoke trail and split in 2 before splitting again into more and going on north.”
In response to that eyewitness account, satellite watchers chimed in to corroborate Chater’s possible GOCE sighting. “Time is a close enough match, (geographic) location as well. Falkland currently UT -3h, so ~21:20 is ~00:20 UT. I’d say it is it,” reported satellite tracker Marco Langbroek.
However, this could have all been coincidence until ESA’s official Twitter account took up the call to investigate, forwarding the eyewitness account to ESA Operations at Darmstadt, Germany.
Then came confirmation: “ESOC experts confirm – this is #GOCE!” announced the official ESA Twitter feed.
From possible sighting to official confirmation, the whole process of GOCE’s demise was documented via Twitter, a testament to the power of social media when tracking space events in real time. Wonderful.
Image credit: Getty