European Cargo Ship Begins Maiden Space Voyage
Liftoff of Europe's ATV cargo ship Jules Verne on March, 8, 2008.
Credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja.

This story was updated at 3:03 a.m. EDT.

An unmanned European cargo ship named after visionary French writer Jules Verne began its maiden voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) late Saturday to deliver fresh food, clothing and vital supplies to the orbiting lab’s astronaut crew.

“Jules Verne,” the first of a new fleet of space freighters built for the European Space Agency (ESA), lit up the night sky above its South American launch site as its modified Ariane 5 rocket lifted off at 11:03 p.m. EST (0403 GMT).

“We are embarking on an extraordinary voyage,” said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain after the successful launch from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. “It is no longer just a book by Jules Verne. This is reality.”

Jules Verne is the first of the ESA’s massive, but disposable, Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) spacecraft to launch toward the ISS to periodically resupply the permanently manned space station.

About the size of a double-decker London bus, the 21-ton cargo tug is 32 feet (10 meters) long, almost 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and is designed to haul up to 16,800 pounds (7,620 kg) - about three times that of current Russian cargo ships - of fresh supplies to the space station. After six months in space, the spacecraft will be jettisoned for disposal in Earth’s atmosphere.

By 12:10 a.m. EST (0510 GMT), the 1.3 billion euro ($1.9 billion) Jules Verne spacecraft successfully reached its final parking orbit some 162 miles (260 km) above Earth to begin a planned four-week shakedown cruise to the ISS. A new ESA mission control center in Toulouse, France is overseeing over the spaceflight, which was delayed one day to allow extra checks on its Arianespace-built Ariane 5 rocket.

“As of today, ESA is an essential partner of the International Space Station,” Dordain said.

ESA officials plan to launch at least five ATVs to the ISS, one every 18 months, in order to secure six-month slots for European astronauts aboard the station’s long-duration missions. A total of seven such cargo ships could ultimately fly, mission managers have said.

The three-astronaut crew currently aboard the space station - which includes French astronaut Leopold Eyharts - slept through the launch of Jules Verne, but will learn of the successful space shot early tomorrow, NASA officials said.

“The ATV, with its large cargo capacity as well as its ability to bring fuel, air and water to ISS will be a significant enhancement to the ISS cargo transportation capability," Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy station program manager, has said of the new cargo ship.

Jules Verne launched just weeks after Europe’s last major contribution, the ESA Columbus laboratory, was delivered to the space station during a NASA shuttle mission last month. The new cargo ship features a unique optical-based docking system that uses laser reflections to navigate its space station approach.

"I think that, in just a few weeks, Europe has pushed back a frontier," Dordain said. "At the start of this year, we were just a theoretical partner of the station. Now we are on our way to being a major partner of the ISS."

Saturday’s liftoff also occurred just days before another shuttle flight, the planned March 11 launch of NASA’s Endeavour orbiter carrying a new Japanese room and Canadian maintenance robot to the ISS. To avoid traffic conflicts at the ISS, the Jules Verne cargo ship will park itself about 1,200 miles (2,000 km) away from the ISS during Endeavour’s planned 16-day mission.

Later this month, flight controllers will put Jules Verne through its orbital paces to test its collision avoidance, abort and rendezvous systems during two demonstration days, on March 29 and March 31, respectively. If the shakedown goes according to plan, the spacecraft will then attempt its first-ever docking at the aft end of the station’s Russian-built Zvezda module.

“[Jules Verne] must pass these tests before it will be allowed to initiate the final rendezvous and docking,” said Brian Smith, NASA’s lead ATV flight director, in a statement.

ESA officials said they were excited to test their homegrown ATVs, which mark the space agency’s first spacecraft designed to support astronauts inside as they are unloaded of cargo at the ISS. The technologies developed for Jules Verne and its sister ships to come could aid development to future manned spacecraft in Europe, they added.

“This is a fundamental vehicle that will be the basis for future exploration and future human capability in the European space program,” said ESA’s ISS program manager Alan Thirkettle, adding that the true test of ATV will come at docking. “We’ll have a bigger smile on our face once it’s actually achieved, of course.”

Tucked aboard the cylindrical spacecraft were handwritten notes by Jules Verne, a famed 19th century science fiction writer who wrote his "De la Terre à la Lune" ("From the Earth to the Moon") more than 140 years before the spacecraft bearing his name reached space. French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy, ESA's ATV senior advisor astronaut, said that Verne’s name fit Europe’s first spacecraft aimed at a orbital outpost.

“He is important for quite a number of astronauts and people who went into space,” said Clervoy, adding that ATV expands on Verne’s vision of spaceflight. “This vehicle … is visionary, and will make it possible for Europe to really participate fully in missions of greater amplitude.”