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In maiden voyage, European space freighter docks with ISS

by Staff Writers
Toulouse, France (AFP) April 3, 2008
Europe's robot freighter successfully docked on its maiden voyage Thursday with the International Space Station, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) hooked up with mankind's orbiting outpost at 1445 GMT, prompting cheers and applause to erupt at mission control in this southwestern French city.

Named after French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne and roughly the size of a London double-decker bus, the ATV is Europe's most ambitious venture in orbital transport and one of its costliest gambles in space.

"This is an historic moment," Yannick d'Escatha, the head of France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), declared.

Closing the gap at six to seven centimetres (three to four inches) per second, the module coupled automatically with the Russian-made unit Zvezda, one of the ISS's earliest components.

Within seven minutes, mechanical links anchored the ATV to the ISS as a prelude to connecting the two vessels' computers by cable.

The mission is "a spectacular demonstration of Europe's capabilities in international space exploration," said ESA's Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain.

The ATV -- described by ESA as combining the functions of a "tug boat and a river barge" -- is carrying 7.5 tonnes of drinking water, food and other essentials for the astronauts on the space station.

"ATV's autopilot worked better than the top pilots in space today, and that's what bugs me," former French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy told AFP, tongue in cheek.

Locked in tandem, ISS and the resupply ship will circle Earth at 28,000 kilometres (17,400 miles) per hour at an altitude of about 350 kilometres (220 miles).

The Jules Verne will stay in place for approximately six months and then, loaded with refuse from the ISS, will separate and burn up in a safe, controlled descent toward Earth over the Pacific Ocean, ESA says.

Mastering automatic-docking technology is considered a key to assembling spaceships in orbit for long-term missions, such as to Mars.

The Jules Verne weighed nearly 20 tonnes at its launch from Kourou, French Guiana, on March 9, but used up some of its fuel in docking rehearsals while in orbit.

Designed and built for 1.3 billion euros (2.01 billion dollars), the Jules Verne will be followed by four more cargo ships, whose assembly and launch will each cost over 300 million euros (471 million dollars).

The automated docking took place three four minutes later than scheduled, but otherwise went off without a hitch.

The module's pressurised Integrated Cargo Carrier has 50 cubic metres (1,765 cu. feet) of storage space -- nearly the capacity of a large shipping container.

Besides drinking water, the 10-metre (32.5-feet) -long vessel houses a tank containing 860 kilos (1,892 pounds) of refuelling propellant for the ISS's propulsion system, as well as oxygen and nitrogen.

Over the next six months, the ATV will boost the multi-module ISS into a higher orbit to compensate for its natural altitude loss of up to several hundred metres (hundreds of feet) per day.

The ISS and its orbiting occupants depend on regular deliveries of experiments, spare parts and life-sustaining supplies, to date furnished by US space shuttles and Russia's Progress resupply vessels.

Since it first went into orbit, the ISS has accommodated 156 astronauts from 15 countries, as well as five "tourists."

earlier related report
European Space Freighter cleared to dock with ISS: ESA
Europe's brand-new robot space freighter received final clearance to dock with the International Space Station (ISS), officials at the European Space Agency announced Wednesday.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), named the Jules Verne after the French pioneer of science fiction, will make its first attempt to link up to the orbiting space station on Thursday at 1441 GMT, said ESA management.

"We have proven that Jules Verne's systems are safe, reliable and ready to dock to the Station," said John Ellwood, the ATV's project manager.

"Everyone has worked very hard to get to this point, and we have also proven that the team on the ground is fully ready for tomorrow's first attempt," he added.

ESA mission control in Toulouse, southwestern France, put the vehicle through two test runs, one on Saturday, the other Monday, which passed off without a hitch.

If Thursday's first attempt at docking does not succeed then the ESA has pencilled in a second attempt for Saturday.

The Jules Verne is a freighter weighing nearly 20 tonnes. Launched on March 9, it is designed to dock automatically with the Russian-made module Zvezda, one of the earliest components of the ISS, an orbital outpost in space.

It carries 7.5 tonnes of water, food and other essentials.

Designing and building it has cost ESA 1.3 billion euros (2.01 billion dollars). Four more ATV cargo ships are in the works, with their assembly and launch each costing just over 300 million euros.

Mastering automatic-docking technology is considered a key to assembling spaceships in orbit for long-term missions, such as to Mars.

The rendezvous and docking will be broadcast live by ESA TV, 16:00-17:15 CEST (14:00-15:15 UT); details are available on the ESA TV web page. The event will also be streamed live via the ESA website starting at 16:00 CEST (14:00 UT); the link will be made available shortly before. Related Links
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European space freighter in dress rehearsal for ISS hookup
Paris (AFP) March 31, 2008
Europe's brand-new robot space freighter inched towards the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday as mission controllers practised emergency manoeuvres ahead of a maiden linkup on Thursday.

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