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Next space truck honours Kepler

19 February 09 00:07 GMT
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Europe's next space freighter will be called Johannes Kepler in honour of the great 17th Century German scientist.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is currently being assembled in Bremen ready for its 2010 mission to resupply the International Space Station.

European Space Agency delegates agreed the name at a meeting on Wednesday.

The first ATV was called Jules Verne after the French science fiction writer and completed a flawless maiden mission last year.

It delivered more than five tonnes of supplies to the orbiting outpost before dropping back to Earth in a controlled burn-up over the Pacific Ocean.

Another Kepler spacecraft is about to make the headlines. The US space agency has also used the name for its planet-hunting telescope due for launch next month.

Johannes Kepler was the "father of celestial mechanics". His three laws describe planetary motion and allow scientists to predict how objects will move through the solar system.

The ATV is one of the most capable spacecraft ever developed in Europe.

After launch, the space truck can work out where it needs to go in space, and then makes a fully automatic docking once it arrives at its destination.

It was developed as part of Esa's ISS membership agreement, to haul cargo, propellant, water and oxygen to the space station; and also to provide propulsion capacity at the station.

But such was the performance of Jules Verne that Esa asked industry to consider how the vehicle might be upgraded - first to bring cargo items safely back to Earth, and eventually to be turned into an astronaut transportation system.

European space ministers agreed to fund this feasibility work at a meeting in The Hague last November.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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