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Spaceship dies in blaze of glory

ESA
The unmanned Jules Verne ATV cargo ship breaks up in a spectacular display
during re-entry, as seen on Monday over the Pacific from an observation plane.

The European Space Agency's first cargo mission to the international space station ended in a spectacular fireworks show today, with the fiery re-entry of the unmanned Jules Verne ATV  spaceship over the South Pacific.

"Jules Verne has now successfully completed its mission," ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain declared at the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow, Scotland.

The end came at around 9:30 a.m. ET, when controllers back at Europe's mission control in Toulouse, France, directed the 17-ton craft into its final plunge. Jules Verne, the first of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicles, was launched from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana early March 9. It linked up with the space station almost a month later, delivering tons of food, water and equipment.

During its stay, Jules Verne periodically boosted the space station's orbit, and in fact helped the station dodge a passing piece of Russian space junk last month.

But all good things must come to an end:  Unlike the Italian-built space cargo modules that are carried back and forth inside NASA's space shuttle, the Euroean-built ATVs are not designed for return or reuse. Instead, each spent craft has to be disposed of safely, by directing it remotely on a plunge through the atmosphere. The wide-open South Pacific is the favorite dumping ground for such space junk, as we saw back in 2001 when Russia's Mir space station fell to its doom.

Jules Verne's re-entry was witnessed by an international team of scientists flying aboard a NASA DC-8 observation plane. Studying the spacecraft's controlled fall could lead to fresh insights about the chemical and radiation effects of falling meteors - as well as better computer models for predicting how objects fragment as the blast through the atmosphere.

ESA
The Jules Verne ATV cargo craft glows during its atmospheric re-entry, in a view
captured Monday from a DC-8 observation plane flying over the Pacific. A lens
diffraction flare can be seen in rainbow colors at lower right.

Today's first pictures from the DC-8, posted to ESA's ATV blog, revealed a spray of fireworks similar to those seen during Mir's fall. More tragically, they also recalled what witnesses saw during the shuttle Columbia's breakup five years ago.

Although experts still have to track all the bits of debris, it looks as if Jules Verne's plunge through the atmosphere provided a great light show, but no big impact. There were far more damaging plunges elsewhere on the planet today.