New ’space truck’ hailed as precursor to Mars mission

March 6th, 2008 - 11:01 pm ICT by admin  

Darmstadt (Germany), March 6 (DPA) A heavy-duty European spacecraft that will make its maiden flight Sunday has been hailed as a precursor to a spaceship that could one day carry robots to the planet Mars. The Jules Verne, which will haul nine tonnes of food, fuel and other supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), then depart with the station’s accumulated garbage, is the first automated transfer vehicle (ATV) in a series of five.

“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.

Speaking Thursday at the European Space Agency (ESA) operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, Capelle said it would have been an easy matter to fly the unmanned ATV by remote control on the journey to the ISS, which is only 400 km from the Earth’s surface.

But that would not work on flights to the moon or other planets.

“That’s why we deliberately ruled this option out for the ATV,” he said in the interview with DPA.

It is to dock at the station and will later be “parked” 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,” said Capelle.

“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.”

The 19.4-tonne Jules Verne, a 10-metre-long cylinder, will be more than twice the heaviest single payload that an Ariane 5 rocket has ever lifted. The voyage will start from Kourou, French Guiana.

Capelle said the most serious risk was that Ariane 5 would not be able to get off the ground with such a load. If that happened, its 600 tonnes of fuel would explode, destroying the rocket and ATV.

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. Capelle said: “I know the Americans are already interested in buying the ATV.”

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 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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