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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 21:47 GMT
Space freighter given launch date
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, Kennedy Space Center

Alan Thirkettle holds model of ATV (BBC)
Alan Thirkettle describes the capabilities of the ATV
Europe's 20-tonne supply ship for the International Space Station will have its maiden flight on Saturday 8 March.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) will launch from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana at 0425 GMT.

It will be lofted on a special Ariane 5 rocket that has been strengthened to carry its enormous weight.

The ATV will haul food, water, fuel and experimental gear to the ISS. It will also re-boost the outpost, which has a tendency to lose altitude over time.

The ATV is acknowledged to be the biggest, most sophisticated spacecraft Europe has ever attempted to fly in space. It is capable of finding its own way to the ISS.

"The ATV is a new departure for Europe; it has just about everything a spacecraft could have," said Alan Thirkettle, the European Space Agency's ISS programme manager.

"It's a very complex vehicle. It's a human-rated spacecraft - it doesn't launch with people but it attaches to the space station so it is man-rated in that sense... and it's got all the characteristics of the most complicated of satellites as well."

Pacific ending

ATV at Kourou (Esa/Arianespace)
ATV will resupply the ISS with up to 7,500kg of cargo
Deliveries will include science equipment, food and clothing
Large tanks can transport vital air, water and fuel supplies
ATV project's estimated cost is about 1.3bn euros (0.9bn)
At least four craft will follow the maiden ATV - Jules Verne
Named after the author who wrote about fantastic journeys

European, US and Russian space agency officials, together with launcher managers, agreed the lift-off date on Wednesday. The decision was announced here at the Kennedy Space Center where Europe is expecting to see its Columbus science lab fly to the outpost on the Atlantis shuttle.

The main issue over the ATV launch date is the heavy traffic at the orbiting platform. Soyuz, Progress and shuttle craft are all visiting the platform in a matter of weeks.

After some "demonstration days" in orbit to show its systems are working properly, the ATV will be commanded to make a docking sometime in the 30 March to 5 April window.

This is a period when the space station is aligned with respect to the Sun in a way that will give astronauts a clear view of the approaching freighter without being blinded by light.

Although the astronauts have no direct involvement in the docking procedure, they can call a halt to the process if they think they see a problem emerging.

The ATV will stay on-station until August, after which it will be commanded to undock and ditch itself in the Pacific.

Graphic: ATV size comparison

Weather may delay Columbus launch
06 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Space cargo ship near completion
30 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
'Jules Verne' fuelled for launch
10 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
Europe's 'big bird' nears flight
13 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Ariane tests space truck sequence
05 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe prepares huge space truck
29 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature
Mission Guide: Jules Verne
29 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature

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