April 3, 2008

New European ‘Space Truck’ Docks at Space Station

Europe's Jules Verne space freighter docked with the international space station this morning, bringing a successful conclusion to a month-long mission for the first in a new line of unpiloted supply capsules.

The linkup at 9:45 a.m. CDT, with the Russian segment of the orbital outpost brought more than 5,000 pounds of fuel, food, clothing, breathing air, spare parts and other goods to the station's crew, commander Peggy Whitson, Garrett Reisman and Yuri Malenchenko of Russia.

More importantly, the Jules Verne mission introduced a crucial cargo alternative to NASA's larger space shuttle and Russia's smaller Progress capsule. The shuttle is facing retirement in 2010, at the same time the station's American-led, 15-nation partnership plans to increase the number of astronauts living on the orbital base from three to six.

The European Space Agency spent $2 billion to develop what it calls the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, a spacecraft as large as a London double decker bus. The Europeans plan to launch five of the freighters through 2015 as their contribution to the operation of the station.

Unlike the piloted shuttle and radar-guided Progress, the ATV relies on a combination of Global Positioning Satellites and lasers to navigate through space to its destination.

Launched from French Guiana atop an Ariane V rocket on March 9, the first of the 44,000 pound ATV's was christened Jules Verne in honor of the visionary 19th century French writer.

The new freighter's long journey followed by a month the launching of the European's habitable Columbus science module to the station aboard the shuttle Atlantis.

The capsule's long journey also permitted the shuttle Endeavour to conduct a 16-day space station mission in March for the delivery of the first piece of Japan's science module.

Prior to today's docking, the Jules Verne conducted a pair of close approaches, the first on Saturday brought the ship within two miles of the station and the second on Monday within 36 feet. The two exercises allowed Malenchenko to demonstrate a safety system that ensures the station's astronauts can command the freighter safely away to avoid a collision.

Today's linkup was managed by flight control teams in Toulouse, France, Moscow and Houston. It began with the Jules Verne 24 miles behind and three miles below the space station.

The docking occurred 212 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.


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