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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 March 2008, 05:29 GMT
Huge space truck races into orbit
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Ariane 5 climbs through the clouds (Esa)
The Ariane climbed rapidly through the rain clouds

Europe's new orbital cargo ship has launched from French Guiana on a mission to resupply the space station.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is the biggest and most complex spacecraft Europe has ever tried to put in orbit.

The 20-tonne unmanned freighter left the Kourou spaceport at 0403 GMT, riding atop an Ariane 5 rocket.

The spectacular night launch in the South American jungle was declared a success once the ATV had separated from its booster 66 minutes after lift-off.

The news was cheered by a huge crowd of VIPs, space agency officials and representatives of the industrial teams that have worked on the development of the ship for past 11 years.

Ground staff and astronauts will monitor the final approach

"With the launch of the ATV, we are embarking on an extraordinary voyage," reflected European Space Agency chief, Jean Jacques Dordain.

"As of today, Europe is an essential partner of the International Space Station (ISS)."

The ATV is the largest, completely automated rendezvous and docking ship to go to the ISS. When it attaches to the platform on 3 April, it will do so without any human assistance.

The vessel will provide the largest refuelling and waste elimination capability for the ISS; and it is the only vehicle on the current timeline that will be able to de-orbit the $100bn platform when it is retired sometime towards the end of the next decade.

Red button

The launch was a significant event for Ariane, too. The European rocket had never before lifted so big a "passenger". Its normal payload is a pair of commercial telecommunications satellites that weigh together less than 10 tonnes.

ATV at Kourou (Esa/Arianespace)
Total cargo: 4,860kg
1,340kg - 'dry' supplies
20kg - air (oxygen/nitrogen)
280kg - drinking water
860kg - propellant for ISS
2,360kg - reboost propellant
The ship itself has 3,490kg of propellant for rendezvous, re-boost and de-orbit manoeuvres

The rocket had to be specially strengthened to carry the ATV aloft.

Its upper-stage was also programmed to perform extra burns - the first to put the freighter in the correct 260km-high orbit, the second to take itself out of the sky and into the Pacific Ocean.

The ATV has been dubbed "Jules Verne" for its maiden flight and is even carrying a first-edition hardback of the 19th-Century French author's book From the Earth to the Moon. It will return on a space shuttle at a later date.

The ATV will now essentially be parked in space. It must wait until the US space shuttle Endeavour has completed its forthcoming mission to the ISS before moving in to make a docking.

The ship's own computers will be in charge of the approach, employing an advanced form of GPS and, in the latter stages, optical sensors to guide itself into the correct position on the end of the Russian Zvezda module.

Astronauts on the station will only intervene - by pressing a red button on a panel - if they sense danger.

Future applications

"Now we have a number of operations to do," said Robert Laine, the technical and research director at EADS Astrium, which is the prime contractor on the ATV.

"First, we have to deploy the solar panels, antennas, and check out everything. Then there will be a major operation in the next few days when we will test out what is known as the 'escape procedure'," he told BBC News.

"It will be as if the red button has been pressed, which tells the ATV everything is lost and it must get out of the way. This is a major milestone insisted on by the US space agency to prove the emergency systems work."

Kourou map (BBC)
The ATV is the way Europe will pay for its membership of the ISS project. Four vehicles will follow this initial flight. But the European Space Agency hopes its new ship will be more than just a high-flying heavy goods lorry.

The sophisticated automated systems onboard are expected to be transferred into many more spacecraft - especially those that require automatic rendezvous and docking.

This would include any mission that went to Mars to try to retrieve rocks to bring back to Earth laboratories.

The hardware that is used to lift the samples off the surface of the Red Planet would need to meet up in orbit with the propulsion unit which would carry it home. The technology for this in-orbit assembly might be derived from ATV know-how.

And there may even be a grander application - one not lost on the Nasa chief Mike Griffin.

"It occurs to me that it's a fairly short step to go from the ATV to something which can carry crew," he has observed.

"It needs an entry system to allow it to come back safely and crew accommodations instead of cargo payload. But it seems to me that having a very fine launcher with the Ariane 5 and a very fine space vehicle with the ATV that it's only a step from there to an independent, European manned-spaceflight capability; and I for one would like to see it."

Cost: Total bill was 1.3bn euros (at least 4 more ATVs will be built)
Total cargo capacity: 7.6 tonnes, but first mission is flying lighter
Mass at launch: About 20 tonnes depending on cargo manifest
Dimensions: 10.3m long and 4.5m wide - the size of a large bus
Solar panels: Once unfolded, the solar wings span 22.3m
Engine power: 4x 490-Newton thrusters; and 28x 220N thrusters

European spaceport's sky-high ambition
07 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Space freighter's complex mission
06 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
ATV: A truck engineered for space
05 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Atlantis ends its Columbus voyage
20 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
A key moment in Europe's space journey
08 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Space cargo ship near completion
30 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
Europe's 'big bird' nears flight
13 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
Europe prepares huge space truck
29 Jun 07 |  Science/Nature

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