The European Space Agency’s ATV-5 supply vessel docked a couple of days ago with the International Space Station. Not just loaded with cargo for the ISS, the ATV-5 is also carrying newly developed camera technology which will record the final moments of ATV-5’s breakup on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The Break-Up Camera (BUC) was designed in only nine months and will relay infrared images from the last 20 seconds of the vessel’s life to a capsule that can survive the extreme heat of reentry.

BUC pictured with Reentry SatCom (right), a capsule designed to withstand extreme heat. Photo: ESA

Called the Reentry SatCom, this capsule can withstand the 1500° C temperatures of reentry and is equipped with an antenna to send images to earth by way of satellite link. To further complicate the matter, the SatCom will fall free of the vessel once the ATV-5 breaks up in the atmosphere at around 80-70 km altitude, and will be engulfed in a plasma of electrically charged gases created by the speed of reentry. Despite this, it should be able to send a signal through a gap in the plasma, or once it’s below 40 km. 

It’s a first for ESA, and will help provide a clearer understanding of what goes on during vehicle reentry.