Space-delivery truck set to test ‘black box’ flight recorder

Europe’s space-delivery truck will test out a prototype ‘black-box’-style flight recorder when it burns up re-entering the atmosphere tomorrow.

The second Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Johannes Kepler, was built for the European Space Agency by EADS Astrium to carry around seven tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station.

Having completed its four-month mission, the vehicle will now plummet back to Earth, carrying some 1,200kg of waste bags and unwanted hardware. Only a few pieces of the ship are likely to survive and fall into the South Pacific Ocean.

Some aspects of a controlled destructive entry are still not well known, so ATV’s last moments will be recorded by a prototype ‘black box’.

The Reentry Breakup Recorder will gather measurements on the location, temperature, pressure and attitude of the vehicle’s break-up before ejecting.

Once it reaches an altitude of about 18km, it will transmit the information via the Iridium satphone system.                          

ATV Johannes Kepler supplied the space station with 1,170kg of dry cargo, 100kg of oxygen, 851kg of propellants to replenish the station tanks and 4,535kg of fuel for the ferry itself to boost the outpost’s altitude and make other adjustments.

The ship also used its thrusters to change the station’s attitude (orientation) several times while it was docked, allowing two Space Shuttles, Japan’s HTV cargo carrier and two Progress and Soyuz spacecraft to visit the station.

ATV’s last task was to give the station’s orbit a boost. Three manoeuvres performed on separate days last week raised the station’s height above the Earth to around 380km.

ESA is already planning another four ATV missions and talks are continuing on whether to turn the ship into ESA’s first manned vehicle, Wolfgang Paetsch, head of EADS Astrium’s ATV programme, told The Engineer earlier this year.