European vessel to dock with ISS
Paris - A European supply vessel carrying more than seven tonnes of freight is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, space officials said.
European Space Agency (ESA) officials said the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), dubbed "Johannes Kepler" in honour of the visionary 17th century German astronomer and mathematician, should ease into place at 15:45 GMT without any intervention from astronauts in the space station.
It is the second of five scheduled missions that represent Europe's contribution to the ISS, and officials see the ATV programme as a vital link for the continued functioning of the space station. The first ATV docked with the ISS in 2008.
The vehicle, built by a consortium led by the space unit of aerospace group EADS, carries three times the cargo of Russia's Progress vehicle and will play a vital role in supplying the ISS when the current generation of space shuttles is phased out after three more missions.
It was developed by the ESA as part of a barter arrangement with the US space agency Nasa.
Instead of paying cash for its share of the station's common operating costs and also to secure additional astronaut access, ESA is providing the ATVs and other components.
"In the early years (of the space station) the US expected the shuttle would fly for the entire life of the ISS," Michael Suffredini, Nasa's ISS programme manager, said in a television interview.
"With the decision to retire the shuttle and to move on to other systems for re-supply, the ATV has become a critical part of our capability," Suffredini said.
A full ATV mission costs around €350m ($475m), the ATV spacecraft itself accounting for around €200m of this, the ESA said.
When the vehicle docks with the ISS, overseen by control stations in France, the US and Russia, the two vehicles will be travelling at 28 000km/h, underlining the technical challenge of the manoeuvre.
The ATV was launched aboard an Ariane-5 rocket on February 16 from the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.
The "Johannes Kepler" will remain fixed to the space station for over three months as astronauts remove its cargo and fill it with rubbish from the station. It will then be thrust back toward earth, burning up on re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.
As well as serving as a space supply truck, the ATV will be used as a "space jack".
Residual gravity from the earth causes the space station to fall about 2.5km a month. The ATV will ignite thrusters to lift the station back to a higher altitude.