New Autonomous Spacecraft Docks at Space Station

The European Space Agency's new unmanned cargo vehicle successfully docked at the International Space Station today. Called the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the 17 metric ton spacecraft made contact with the orbiting space platform at 14:45 GMT on an experimental mission to prove its technical prowess and deliver much-needed supplies. It also marked the entrance of the European nations into the ISS flight club.

According to an announcement from ESA, the automated approach began 39 kilometers behind the ISS and lasted 4 hours, in which the closing of the two was halted repeatedly to check bearings. ESA said the Jules Verne autonomously computed its own position through relative GPS and, at close range, used videometers pointed at laser retro-reflectors on the ISS to determine its distance and orientation relative to its target.

At docking, the ATV was traveling at 7 centimeters per second relative to the velocity of the ISS, within a positional tolerance of less than 10 cm to an aft coupling on the Russian space agency's Zvezda module. The mating vehicles were orbiting Earth at 28000 km/h some 340 km above the Eastern Mediterranean at the time.

Computers onboard the Jules Verne controlled the entire procedure, while specialists at the French Space agency's ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France, observed. The new spacecraft had been programmed to withdraw to a previous position of safety in the event that a malfunction occurred during the approach. Today, no fail-safe measures were needed, as the ATV performed its maneuvers flawlessly.

ESA said the Jules Verne will now become part of the space station for the next four months. The crew of Expedition 16 aboard the ISS will now focus on unloading the weightless 3.4 metric tons of supplies (including equipment, goods, water, fuel, and oxygen) from the ATV, according to a statement on NASA's ISS site.

The director of NASA said he applauded today's achievement.

"I am incredibly proud of and pleased for our European partners with this demonstration of a successful automated docking of the ATV cargo vehicle with the ISS," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said today in a press release.

"Only Russia has previously achieved a successful automated docking in space," he noted. "This accomplishment showcases yet again the progress which has been made by the international partnership in bringing this incredible program to fruition. Together with the arrival of the Columbus Module at the ISS earlier this year, the success of the ATV marks the arrival of Europe as a full-fledged space power."

"The ATV is so much more than a simple delivery truck, it is an intelligent and versatile spaceship which has just demonstrated its extraordinary skills," said Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration. "It is the largest and most complex spacecraft ever developed in Europe and the second in size of all the vehicle's visiting the station, after NASA's space shuttle. With Columbus and the ATV, we have entered the major league of the ISS."

As part of its mission, the Jules Verne will fire its rockets later this month in a propulsion procedure designed to boost the orbital altitude of the space station, which decays slowly over time due to thermospheric drag. Subsequently, it will be filled with station waste. Then it will be de-orbited for destruction on reentry over the Pacific in August.

The Jules Verne is the first of as many as seven ATVs to be built by ESA for space station flights.

Within its cargo bay, it carries a nineteenth-century illustrated copy of the French science-fiction writer's novel From the Earth to the Moon.

[Editor's Note: Please see our prior entry "Endeavour Returns Safely; Jules Verne Approaches Space Station" for more on the Jules Verne ATV.]

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