September 5, 2008

Jules Verne To Make Final Voyage

On Friday, Europe's space freighter "” dubbed Jules Verne "” will undock from the International Space Station after completing its mission to the orbiting platform.

The ship will release itself from the rear of the ISS before diving into the atmosphere in three weeks' time, on September 29.

The ships re-entry over the Pacific Ocean will destroy the vehicle and the station waste loaded on to it by astronauts. The automated undocking procedure is expected to get under way at 2130 GMT.

Jules Verne is the first in a series of unmanned freighters that will go to the station over the course of the next few years

ISS mission controllers in Moscow will oversee the events as well as Jules Verne's dedicated management facility in Toulouse, France.

"It has satisfied all its requirements; it's met all our dreams and more," said John Ellwood, from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Ellwood said the performance has, in some cases, been even better than they expected. "It's been very satisfying after so much hard work by so many people."

The ship's generic name is Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) - an immensely complex spacecraft. And while many of ESA's scientific satellites are extremely sophisticated, nothing matches the scale of the freighter.

Once launched, the robotic craft can work out where it needs to go in space, and then makes a fully automatic docking once it arrives at its destination.

Jules Verne was developed for Esa as part of its ISS membership agreement, to haul cargo, propellant, water and oxygen to the space station; and also to provide propulsion capacity at the station.

When the Jules Verne ATV was launched to the ISS it carried around 8.3 tons of wet and dry cargo with an additional 2.3 tons of cargo support hardware.

The freighter has been called upon to fire its thrusters on five occasions in order to lift the ISS higher into the sky, something that needs to be done every so often as the platform has a tendency to drift back to Earth as it skirts through the top of the atmosphere.

One re-boosts helped to move the ISS clear of debris from a disintegrated Russian satellite.

But Jules Verne has shown itself to be more than just a high-flying rubbish incinerator.

Astronauts have appreciated the large space inside the ship and its docking position on the rear of the platform has been a quiet place to sleep for some crewmembers.

The mission has raised no major technical issues from an engineering standpoint that need to be taken into the next freighter, already in preparation for an expected June 2010 launch.

Technicians noticed that a thermal jacket that protects the vehicle from the extreme conditions in space had lifted up slightly shortly after docking on April 3.

But Michael Menking from EADS-Astrium, which leads production of the vehicle, said it wasn't "really a problem. "If you measured the temperature inside there was no issue."

The maiden voyage has in many ways been remarkably uneventful. "You'll understand if I say I like a really boring mission," joked Menking.

ATV-Jules Verne will sit under the space station after Friday's undocking until its final de-orbit maneuver can be timed with a night re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Darkness will allow spotter planes to follow the fiery descent over an uninhabited part of the Pacific.

Ellwood says it will be much easier to observe at night. "We're going to do the re-entry directly underneath the space station so the astronauts can take photographs of it.

"We want to make sure that everything we've done is correct, and this will be the final confirmation."

What Esa wants to do with the technology remains unsure. It is already committed to flying another four cargo missions to the ISS, but there is a strong desire among agency management and in industry to turn the ATV into a crewed vessel"”making the propulsion and avionics section of the ATV fitted with a capsule that could survive re-entry and bring astronauts safely back to Earth.

A step-by-step program with a budget of a couple of billion euros could evolve the current unmanned design into a fully independent European crew space transportation system, according to EADS-Astrium.

Esa member states are likely to be asked to discuss the issue when space ministers meet in The Hague in November.

Menking said: "We are optimistic, we've done our own studies from the technical point of view; but the Esa Council at the ministerial level is the right forum to decide if the 'ATV Evolution' is realized or not. It's a political decision."

He said it would be cargo re-entry as a first step and then, as a second step, possibly a crew system.


Image 1: Jules Verne ATV docked with the Russian Zvezda module on 3 April 2008. Credits: NASA TV

Image 2: Loading dry cargo into Jules Verne's pressurized module. Jules Verne is the first Automated Transfer Vehicle, Europe's resupply spacecraft for the International Space Station. Jules Verne is being prepare for launch at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. (8 December 2007) Credits: 2007 - ESA /CNES/Arianespace/Photo optique video du CSG


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