ESA space ferry moves Space Station to avoid debris

November 5, 2014, European Space Agency
A view from the International Space Station with Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle Georges Lemaître. Credit: ESA/NASA

The International Space Station was threatened by space debris last week but ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle saved the day by firing its thrusters to push the orbital outpost and its six occupants out of harm's way.

This is the first time the Station's international partners have avoided with such urgency.

Ground stations continuously track space junk – leftover hardware from defunct satellites – for potentially life-threatening collisions. A fleck of paint can cause major damage travelling at 28 800 km/h. When they raise the alarm, ground teams can move the Station to a safer orbit.

The calculations sometimes take hours – this is rocket science – but fortunately, most of the time, the radar network gives ample warning. Sometimes a dangerous object can slip through the net or its erratic behaviour makes accurate predictions difficult.

This is where Europe's ATV Georges Lemaître came in on 27 October. A piece of Russia's Cosmos-2251 satellite that broke up after colliding with another satellite in 2009 was on a collision course with the International Space Station. The object was around the size of a hand and calculations showed it would pass within 4 km – too close for comfort.

Just six hours before potential impact, the five space Station agencies agreed to an emergency manoeuvre. The ATV Control Centre team in Toulouse, France, triggered a boost of 1.8 km/h, enough to raise the 420-tonne Station by 1 km and out of harm's way.

This image of the International Space Station with the docked Europe's ATV Johannes Kepler and Space Shuttle Endeavour was taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli from Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking on 24 May 2011. Credit: ESA/NASA

Before 2012, if an object was spotted within 24 hours of a potential strike the astronauts returned to their spacecraft, prepared for evacuation and hoped for the best.

Since 2012, emergency manoeuvres at less than 24 hours' notice are possible using Russia's Progress supply ship – but none was in harbour earlier this week. ATVs have been able to perform this move since last year, starting with ATV Albert Einstein, but its services were not required during its mission.

Although this debris avoidance used a predefined manoeuvre, great care was taken to make sure that the move did not push the Station into a worse orbit or affect the docking of last week's Progress.

"This is what the ATV Control Centre team trains for," said ESA flight director Jean-Michel Bois. "Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, we are ready to react and we practise often in simulations.

"Reacting so quickly to save the Space Station in real life was tense but rewarding."

ESA’s supply and support ferry ATVGeorgesLemaître approaches the International Space Station for docking. The fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle docked with the weightless research centre on 12 August 2014. Credit: Roscosmos–O. Artemyev

In close coordination with the Station's control centres in Moscow, Russia and Houston, USA, the ATV team commanded a four-minute thruster burn starting at 17:42 GMT (18:42 CET).

The helping hand from Georges Lemaître was one of the last tricks up ATV's sleeve. The versatile vessels have achieved many firsts for ESA. They are the largest European spacecraft ever launched and the only non-Russian vehicle to dock automatically with the Station.

After delivering more than 6.6 tonnes of supplies, fuel and gases, Georges Lemaître will undock in February and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere, after demonstrating a new shallow reentry for planning Station decommissioning.

Soyuz TMA-03M and Progress as seen by ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers during his mission. Credit: ESA/NASA
"The debris avoidance demonstrates ATV's reliability and the great team behind mission control," concluded ESA's ATV-5 mission manager Massimo Cislaghi. "With this manoeuvre, ATVs have met every requirement of the original design."

But the versatility does not end there. ATV technology will be a critical part of NASA's Orion, supplying power and life-support for the next generation of crewed spacecraft.

ESA’s supply and support ferry ATV Georges Lemaître approaches the International Space Station for docking. The fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle docked with the weightless research centre on 12 August 2014. Credit: Roscosmos–O. Artemyev

Explore further: ESA video: The ATV-5 Georges Lemaitre loading process

Related Stories

ESA video: The ATV-5 Georges Lemaitre loading process

September 2, 2014

This time-lapse video shows the ATV-5 Georges Lemaitre loading process and its integration on the Ariane 5 launcher before its transfer and launch to the International Space Station from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French ...

Burn ATV-4, burn

November 6, 2013

( —ESA's fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle,Albert Einstein,burnt up on 2 November at 12:04 GMT over an uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean. It left the International Space Station a week earlier with 1.6 tonnes ...

Video: ATV-5 separation from Ariane 5

August 1, 2014

These images were taken by cameras on the Ariane 5 launcher that rocketed skywards on 29 July 2014 with Europe's last cargo vessel to visit the International Space Station, ATV-5. The video shows the separation of ATV Georges ...

ATV-5 set to test new rendezvous sensors

March 19, 2014

ESA's space freighter ATV Georges Lemaître, set for launch this summer,will test new rendezvous sensors in space as it approaches the International Space Station.

ESA's cargo vessel ready for space delivery

August 12, 2014

ESA's latest Automated Transfer Vehicle is set to dock with the International Space Station on Tuesday, delivering more than six tonnes of crucial supplies and scientific experiments to the orbiting research base.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.