European Spaceship Passes Rendezvous, Escape Tests
Europe's new unmanned cargo ships will resupply the space station.
Credit: ESA/D.Ducros.

Europe's first automated "Jules Verne" cargo ship passed several crucial tests today above the Earth in preparation for docking at the International Space Station (ISS) in less than a week.

The unmanned, double-decker bus-sized spacecraft safely guided itself to a point just 2.2 miles (3.5 km) behind the space station, closing a 21.8-mile (34.5-km) gap in the process. The ship then successfully performed a test escape maneuver after receiving commands from mission controllers on the ground.

"All systems were completely nominal, which is very satisfying for this first day of really testing the rendezvous capability of the spacecraft," said John Ellwood, the European Space Agency's (ESA) project manager for the Jules Verne program.

The 21-ton ship, also known as an automated transport vehicle (ATV), is designed to ferry about three times the amount of fuel, oxygen, water and other supplies into space than Russia's Progress cargo ship can.

The ESA expects this Jules Verne — the first of up to seven ships planned — to dock at the space station on April 3.

First demo day

In addition to sneaking up on the space station and showing off its escape maneuvers, the 21-ton Jules Verne established a two-way data link with the ISS.

The stream of GPS (global positioning satellite) information is expected help the ship navigate to the space station with extreme accuracy as well as allow two-way communication, should the ISS crew need to abort its docking maneuvers.

When Jules Verne reached its closest holding position behind the Russian-built Zvezda service module, the 1.3 billion euro ($1.9 billion) craft turned on its bright tracking lights and rendezvous radar equipment.

The Russian-built Kurs radar system, which has been used for decades on spacecraft, successfully delivered distance and speed information to the space station's on-orbit crew.

Closing in

During the demonstration, which is one of two planned before Thursday's anticipated docking, astronauts on board the space station said they could see Jules Verne drifting behind them.

Ground controllers at the ship's Toulouse, France control center could also see the spacecraft on video screens.

"For the flight control team, the sight of the ATV thrusters firing was particularly exciting and brought the whole thing to life," said Bob Chesson, head of the ESA?s human spaceflight operations. "It was fantastic to be reunited with Jules Verne and to see it performing so perfectly, which is very promising for the days to come."

Technicians are now analyzing the demonstration day data and will soon submit their report to space station mission managers. If the assessment is normal, Jules Verne will be slated for a second day of demonstrations on March 31, which will bring the giant ship within 36 feet (11 m) of the space station.

"The first analysis from the [team is] looking pretty good," said Alberto Novelli, ESA?s mission director at ATV control center. "We are going to spend some hours now analysing them further. We are quite confident."