New European ’space truck’ launched into orbit

March 9th, 2008 - 7:09 pm ICT by admin  

Bremen (Germany) March 9 (DPA) Europe’s first-ever space transporter settled into orbit Sunday after a successful launch from the jungle of South America. The orbital cargo ship blasted aloft from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana at 0403 GMT atop an Ariane-5 carrier rocket on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Jules Verne, which is hauling six tonnes of food, fuel and other supplies to the ISS, is the first automated transfer vehicle (ATV) in a series of five.

Weighing 20 tonnes, the unmanned “space truck” is also the largest vehicle ever lifted into space aboard the European rocket. Ariane’s normal payload is around 10 tonnes.

After jettisoning its booster and upper stage rockets, the ATV began its 260-km-high orbit before unfolding its solar panels and activating its navigation system.

“Europe is now an important partner for the operation of the ISS,” said Jean Jacques Dordain, head of the European Space Agency (ESA), after the launch in Kourou.

“What’s special is that it can dock all by itself at the ISS without any manual assistance,” said Kris Capelle, head of the team that will fly the Jules Verne on its final 3,500-metre approach to the ISS.

But that won’t be until early April. Until then the spacecraft will undergo a series of manoeuvres and tests to make sure that nothing goes wrong with the automatic docking procedure.

After unloading its cargo it will depart with the station’s accumulated garbage and “park” in orbit 2,000 km from the station, before being crashed in August into the earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up.

“On the maiden flight we will be monitoring it the whole time to make sure that it is really doing what it is supposed to,” Capelle said earlier this week.

“If anything goes wrong, the ATV has to register it and abort its approach.” Should that happen, scientists on the ground would have two days to fix the problem remotely. “But if everything works right, we won’t have anything to do.”

Jules Verne is also set to give the ISS a 30-km boost into a higher orbit. The station’s altitude has been reducing by 200 metres daily.

ESA has ordered five ATVs to re-supply the ISS. They will gain in importance after 2010 when the US space shuttles will be taken out of service.

The Jules Verne can carry three times as much payload as its Russian delivery-van equivalent, the Progress spacecraft.

ISS astronauts will be able to go inside the bus-sized, 10-metre-long craft when it arrives and unload their food and other supplies from its shelving.

The Jules Verne was assembled by the EADS Astrium company at Bremen, Germany from parts built in many countries. It cost 1.3 billion euros ($2 billion) to develop.

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