April 2, 2008

European Space Truck Cleared to Dock at ISS

Europe's first unmanned space freighter is clear to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow after acing two rendezvous tests, mission managers said Wednesday.

The European Space Agency (ESA) approved plans to dock the massive automated cargo ship Jules Verne at the station on Thursday at 10:41 a.m. EDT (1441 GMT). The first of Europe's new fleet of Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs), the 21-ton spacecraft has already made two approaches to the space station - on Saturday and Monday, respectively - flying within about 36 feet (11 meters) at its closest approach.

"We have proven that Jules Verne's systems are safe, reliable and ready to dock to the station," said John Ellwood, ESA's ATV project manager, in a Wednesday statement.

Named after the famed 19th century science fiction writer, the Jules Verne ATV is a cylindrical spacecraft about the size of a London double-decker bus. It is large enough to carry three times the cargo as Russia's unmanned Progress spacecraft and is powered by four solar panels that jut out at diagonal angles, giving the space freighter the look of a fat X-wing fighter from "Star Wars."

Jules Verne launched toward the ISS on March 8 (ET) atop a modified Ariane 5 rocket to begin an almost four-week shakedown cruise. It is the first of at least five, and possibly a total of seven, ATVs to haul fresh supplies to astronauts aboard the space station.

The 32-foot (10-meter) long Jules Verne is about 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and took up a parking orbit while the crew of NASA's space shuttle Endeavour delivered a new Japanese room and Canadian robot to the ISS last month.

The ESA has spent about 1.3 billion Euros ($1.9 billion) to develop, build and launch the Jules Verne ATV. Flight controllers at a dedicated ATV Control Center in Toulouse, France, are watching over the new spacecraft.

Unlike Russia's Soyuz and Progress vehicles, which can be flown manually or by remote control if their autonomous systems fail, ESA's ATV cargo ships are not designed to be guided in by astronauts. Instead, space station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko have a red button that they can push to send Jules Verne back to a safe distance if it strays from its proper docking course.

But the spacecraft and its novel video-based docking system, which uses lasers to determine its position from the ISS, have performed as expected during tests.

On March 29, Jules Verne flew within about 2 miles (3.5 km) of the station before backing away as directed. During Monday's test, the cargo ship parked itself 36 feet (11 meters) from the aft of the station's Russian-built Zvezda service module, where it is set to dock on Thursday, before Whitson and Malenchenko successfully tested their emergency escape command to send the spacecraft away.

"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," Ellwood said.

NASA will provide live coverage of the Jules Verne ATV's space station docking on NASA TV beginning at 8:00 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT).