Science & Environment

Europe's ATV freighter docks at space station

ATV
Image caption The ATV approaches the rear of the ISS

Europe's sophisticated ATV space freighter has docked with the International Space Station (ISS).

The unmanned robotic craft attached itself to the Zvezda module on the rear of the platform at 22:31 GMT.

The ship is delivering new supplies of fuel, food, water, air and equipment to the ISS's astronauts.

ATV is totally automatic and used its own computerised systems and sensors to find the station in orbit and make the connection.

At 20 tonnes, the freighter is the biggest ship servicing the station now that the US shuttles have been retired.

Mission managers, based in Toulouse, France, oversaw the final manoeuvres but had no need to intervene.

Astronauts Andre Kuipers and Oleg Kononenko were inside Zvezda when the vehicle made its final approach. They too stood ready to order the truck to a safe distance if any anomalous behaviour was observed, but the docking proceeded extremely smoothly.

In fact, the contact, which occurred over the American Samoas in the Pacific, was so gentle the ISS crew reported they hardly felt it.

Image caption The freighter is being monitored from Toulouse

The station's astronauts will need to scrub the air inside the ship before entering.

Once given the all clear, the six station residents can start to move the freighter's supplies across into the main body of the 390km-high (242 mile) orbiting post.

This ATV is the third such craft to be sent to the station by the European Space Agency (Esa), and has been dubbed Edoardo Amaldi in honour of the 20th Century Italian physicist who co-discovered slow neutrons, an essential step to nuclear power.

The two previous vehicles flew in 2008 and 2011.

The trucks are part of the barter arrangement that Esa has with its international partners on the ISS project.

Instead of handing over cash to cover station running costs, Europe has taken on the major responsibility of platform logistics.

In return, it gets residency rights for its astronauts - one individual to spend six months in orbit, every couple of years.

Dutchman Kuipers is the current beneficiary of that trade-in-kind.

Image caption The ATV was launched last Thursday

The total cargo mass of ATV-Edoardo Amaldi - if you add in the fuel the ship uses for its in-orbit manoeuvres - is just over 6.5 tonnes.

This includes the largest ever load of dry cargo - 2.2 tonnes. Dry cargo covers everything from clothing and new toothbrushes to the Lego kits that astronauts use in the education demonstrations they beam to Earth.

ATV-Edoardo Amaldi should stay docked to the ISS until September. It will then be filled with station rubbish and sent into a destructive dive over the South Pacific.

European space ministers will meet later this year to decide on a successor to the ATV programme which is due to end after the fifth truck in the series visits the station in 2014.

One suggestion is that the technologies in the ship be used to push an American-developed manned capsule to destinations beyond the ISS.

Another idea is that those technologies be put into a new European multi-role space tug. This could perform tasks such as removing redundant satellites from orbit.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me onTwitter

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