PARIS – Europe's fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) Feb. 14, marking the end of a seven-year era in European spaceflight.

Named “Georges LeMaitre” after the Belgian priest – a cosmologist and father of the Big Bang theory – ATV-5 undocked from the aft port of the Russian Zvezda service module onboard the ISS at 8:42 a.m. eastern in preparation for a controlled destructive atmospheric reentry Sunday afternoon.

“With ATV-5, the success story of the most complex spacecraft ever developed and constructed in Europe, which began in 2008, comes to a close. But this technology will not burn up with the re-entry of ATV 'Georges Lemaitre.' Instead, it will bring a multitude of new space projects to life,” said Francois Auque, head of space systems at ATV prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space. “This success has only been possible thanks to the unparalleled European and international cooperation over the last two decades. This cooperation and the ATV’s world-leading technology will live on long into the future with the [NASA] Orion program taking astronauts into Earth’s orbit and beyond – a real testament to everyone who worked on this fantastic program.”

Led by the 21-nation European Space Agency (ESA), ATV is the largest and most sophisticated space vehicle ever built in Europe, a space freighter that is renowned for its reliability and precision. The ATV is the only cargo vehicle capable of operating with a high degree of independence, able to navigate autonomously and rendezvous with the ISS to an accuracy equivalent to the width of a €1 coin.

Neither the ATV-5 nor its predecessor, the ATV-4 “Albert Einstein,” touched the docking cone that is used to guide less precise spacecraft to their target during the docking procedure, which takes place at an altitude of around 400 km (250 mi.) – 30 times higher than the cruising altitude of a passenger aircraft – and at a speed of 28,000 km/h. Airbus says astronauts aboard the station did not even hear the docking.

Following the Feb. 14 undocking, the ATV-5 was maneuvered to a safe distance away from the orbiting space station as the two vehicles passed at 257 mi. altitude over Mongolia. The ATV then initiated a series of departure burns to reach a position behind and below the ISS before shifting to a point some 657 mi. in front of and below the space station. ATV-5 will reside there for the next 24 hrs. before a pair of de-orbit burns planned for Feb. 15, which will begin the vehicle's reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

The first burn is slated for 9:29 a.m., and will significantly lower the altitude of the ATV-5. The second burn will come two orbits later at 12:26 p.m. and will last 23 mins., at a point when the vehicle is 786 mi. away from the station. Breakup of the vehicle is expected at 1:12 pm, when the ATV-5 is expected to burn up harmlessly over the Pacific Ocean.

During reentry, the Georges LeMaitre will record its reentry and burn up in the atmosphere using ESA's onboard Break-Up Camera (BUC). Originally, ATV-5 was slated to reenter with two experiments to record its fiery demise from inside. But after a decision earlier this week to change ATV-5's reentry profile to a more classical, steeper burn – rather than the initially planned shallow reentry - NASA decided to hold its experiment - the REBR-W – from ATV’s final flight.

ESA says the BUC data to be collected on ATV-5 will make a significant contribution to reentry safety studies, complementing previous REBR dynamics data collected in 2012 on ATV-3 “Edoardo Amaldi,” which also flew a steep reentry profile.

ATV-5's departure opens up the Zvezda aft port in preparation for the arrival of a Russian Progress unmanned cargo vehicle. The automated unpiloted version of the Soyuz spacecraft is slated to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Feb. 17 to bring supplies and fuel to the ISS.

The ATV-5 undocking brings an era of European space freighters to a close. The first ATV, "Jules Verne," launched March 9, 2008, and spent 155 days docked to the ISS, followed three years later by ATV-2 “Johannes Kepler,” which launched Feb. 16, 2011 and spent 116 days the space station. The third was the Edoardo Amaldi, which launched in March 23, 2012 and spent 184 days at the ISS, followed by Albert Einstein, which launched June 5, 2013 to spend 135 days at the station.

In all, the ATVs spent a combined 776 days of docked operations at the orbiting outpost and delivered a total of nearly 32 metric tons (70,547 lb) of cargo and payload to the station.

Launched July 29 by European launch consortium Arianespace atop an Ariane 5 ES launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, the ATV-5 weighed 19,926-kg (44,000-lb) at liftoff, loaded with fuel, food, water and supplies on its final mission to the ISS. The vessel rendezvoused and docked with the orbiting outpost Aug. 12, where it had remained a pressurized part of the station for the past six months.

During its 186-day stay in space, ATV-5 regularly raised the station’s orbit to compensate for the effects of drag in the upper atmosphere. In all, teams at the Toulouse Space Center in France conducted five attitude-control, three orbit-reboost and two debris-avoidance maneuvers – a first in the history of European spaceflight.

The ATV series of space freighters is part of Europe’s barter contribution toward the cost of ISS operations, in exchange for which European astronauts and experiments are flown on the station. In March 2011, ESA member states decided to cap the ATV program at five vehicles to focus on new developments, rather than continue ATV production.

The five ISS partners will now redistribute ATV capabilities among the rest of the station's servicing fleet, which includes the SpaceX Dragon, Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus, Japanese HTV and the Russian Progress vessel. However, the latter is the only vehicle capable of performing ISS reboost and refueling.