The European Space Agency's Break Up Camera might be the most badass disposable camera ever. When the agency's space station resupply ship completes its final journey and plunges to a fiery death in the Earth's atmosphere, the camera will record data up to the very last second — until it burns up with the rest of the ship.
The Break Up Camera is currently onboard the Automated Transfer Vehicle 5 (ATV-5), which just docked on the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday. The fifth and last of the ESA's line of ISS cargo ships, the ATV-5 is also making its final voyage. After it leaves ISS six months from now, it will — like old satellites and space stations before it — disintegrate as it falls through Earth's atmosphere.
— ESA (@esa) August 13, 2014
The whole process will be captured by the infrared Break Up Camera. The camera itself will burn up, but it will store the final 20 seconds of footage in a ceramic-shielded Rentry SatCom — essentially a blackbox that will keep the images safe from 2,700 F heat.
Once the ATV breaks up, the SatCom will immediately begin transmitting the data to Iridium communication satellites. But even talking to satellites is not easy when you're falling at 7km per second. In the words of the ESA, there's the pesky problem of "the blackout effect of the blowtorch-like 'plasma' of electrically charged gases enveloping reentering objects." The SatCom has an omnidirectional antennae designed to find a small gap in the plasma behind the falling object.
The Break Up Camera (left) and SatCom. ESA
The Break Up Camera is making its first and only voyage on this ATV-5's mission. But it will join Japan's i-Ball optical camera and NASA's Re-entry Break-up Recorder, which have been used before to study how other resupply ships broke up in the atmosphere. With the Break Up Camera's infrared instruments on board, we'll have the most complete picture yet of the final moments of a dying spaceship. [ESA]
Picture: Artist interpretation of the ATV breaking up. ESA.