Spectacular Picture of Resupply Ship Albert Einstein Burning Up in Re-Entry

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Nov. 5 2013 12:45 PM

Albert Einstein Burns up in Re-Entry

Oh my, I was hoping we’d get pictures of this: The Automated Transfer Vehicle Albert Einstein burning up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere last week:

ATV 4 burns up
The resupply ship Albert Einstein burns up over the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by NASA / ESA

Albert Einstein was the 4th ATV sent by the European Space Agency to resupply the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). It berthed* with the ISS in June, 2013, delivering a staggering seven tons of materials to space, including food, water, air, and propellant. It also reboosted the station, twice, to lift it to a higher orbit; over time the ISS orbit drops due to the very slow work of air resistance. The atmosphere at a height of 370 kilometers is incredibly thin, but over time it will make itself known.

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Einstein unberthed from ISS on Oct. 28, loaded down with 1.6 tons of waste from the station (human waste, dirty clothes, and so on), It fired a de-orbit burn, and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Nov. 2. It burned up over the Pacific ocean, heated to incandescence as it rammed through our air at a dozen times the speed of a rifle bullet. An astronaut snapped the shot of the ATV’s fiery descent when it was about 100 km below; more amazing pictures are available on the ATV blog.

ATV 4 burns up
Another shot, taken seconds after the one above, shows pieces of the ship ablating off, looking like fireflies as the fierce ram pressure heats the material to glowing. The fuzzy arc on the right is from a bit of dust on the astronaut's camera lens.

Photo by NASA / ESA

Einstein was the penultimate ATV to go to the ISS. The next, ATV 5 Georges Lemaître, is due to launch in June 2014.  

* NASA uses the word "berth" when a maneuverable ship mates with something that cannot move under its own power. "Docking" is used for two ships that can maneuver. The ISS does have thrusters, but they move the station very slowly; they are used for big moves, not finely-controlled ones like mating.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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