Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 00:06 UK

Space truck's big moment arrives

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

The ATV (Jules Verne) finds its own way to the space station

Europe's sophisticated new space truck, the ATV, is set to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).

The unmanned vessel will deliver just under five tonnes of food, water, air, fuel and equipment to the orbiting platform's three astronauts.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle will use its own computerised systems to make the attachment.

Ground controllers and the station's astronauts will not get involved unless there is a problem.

Contact with the Zvezda module on the rear of the ISS is timed for 1440 GMT.

Mission managers are satisfied the practice docking manoeuvres undertaken by the vehicle in the past few days have more than met the strict performance targets set before launch.

"It's been really amazing; during our manoeuvres we had virtually no anomalies," said Nicolas Chamussy, the ATV programme manager at lead manufacturer EADS Astrium.

"To give you an idea of how well this vehicle has performed - we've been using about 4kg of fuel per day for attitude control whereas we were expecting to use 15-20kg," he told BBC News.

The ATV is the first completely automated rendezvous and docking ship to go to the ISS
The ATV is the largest and most powerful space tug going to the ISS over its mission life
It provides the largest refuelling and waste elimination capability for the space station
It is the only vehicle on the current timeline able to de-orbit the ISS when it is retired

The 20-tonne ATV has been dubbed Jules Verne - after the 19th-Century French science fiction author - for its maiden voyage.

One of its main tasks will be to raise the altitude of the station, which is currently at about 340km. The ISS has a tendency to fall back to Earth over time as it drags through the top of the atmosphere.

Every few weeks the freighter will fire its thrusters to accelerate the platform complex, taking it higher into the sky.

As astronauts deplete the ship's supplies, they will fill the empty storage racks with rubbish. In a few months' time, probably in August, Jules Verne will detach from the ISS and take itself and the waste into a controlled burn-up over the Pacific Ocean.

Four more space trucks are booked to fly to the station between now and 2015. The logistics vehicles represent the subscription Europe must pay for its membership of the ISS project.

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

But Jules Verne's significance goes well beyond mere cargo duties.

The automated systems that allow it to track down an object (the ISS) moving at 27,000km/h, and attach itself with an accuracy of 2cm, are beyond what other space-faring nations have at the moment - including the Russians and the US.

Artist's concept of European space station (Esa)
ATV technology gives Europe the capability to build its own mini-station

These technologies are expected to find applications in many more missions that require automatic rendezvous and docking. These would include ventures that take humans back to the Moon or on to Mars.

Any attempt to retrieve rocks from the Red Planet for study in Earth labs would also need the sorts of sensors the ATV employs to join spacecraft together without manual assistance.

At Esa HQ in Paris, however, space officials have even grander plans.

They believe Jules Verne's technologies could eventually be incorporated into an independent European manned spaceship - perhaps one that looked similar to the Orion concept now being built by the Americans to replace the shuttle.

Currently, European astronauts are totally dependent on the US or Russia to get into space.

Europe has demonstrated very capable launcher technology with its Ariane rockets; it has shown with the ATV it can build human-rated spacecraft that are highly navigable.

With further technological development - on re-entry systems, in particular - it would then have the complete package of engineering solutions needed to take people into space and bring them back safely.

Europe's space ministers will be asked to consider such ideas at their meeting in November.


Dainty space truck proves itself
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Space truck does emergency drill
14 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Huge space truck races into orbit
09 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Mission Guide: Jules Verne
05 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
European spaceport's sky-high ambition
07 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
A key moment in Europe's space journey
08 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature

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