European Space Freighter Makes Docking Debut
A camera outside the International Space Station caught this view of the arriving European cargo ship Jules Verne during its docking on April 3, 2008.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 4:32 p.m. EDT.

WASHINGTON — Europe?s first space freighter, the unmanned cargo ship Jules Verne, made its docking debut at the International Space Station (ISS) Thursday with a graceful arrival after weeks of waiting in Earth orbit.

The first of a new fleet of automated resupply ships, Jules Verne successfully docked at the orbiting laboratory at about 10:40 a.m. EDT (1440 GMT) under the watchful eye of station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.

?Right now the vehicle can be seen clearly?it?s lit by the sun,? Malenchenko told Russia?s Mission Control before the two spacecraft docked 212 miles (341 km) above the southern Atlantic Ocean, just south of the equator and east of South America.

Malenchenko was poised to push a red button on a console inside the station?s Russian-built Zvezda service module that would send Jules Verne away from the ISS should the cargo ship stray off course during its meticulous approach. But the spacecraft?s smooth docking made the emergency measure unnecessary.

New spaceship class

About the size of a London double-decker bus, Jules Verne is the first of the ESA?s class of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) spacecraft to fly to the ISS. The agency spent some 1.3 billion Euros ($1.9 billion) over more than a decade to develop and build Jules Verne, and plans to launch as many as seven ATV freighters to resupply the station as payment for astronaut slots on future ISS crews.

?It was a first for Europe and we achieved it on the first try,? said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain during a post-docking webcast. ?I think it?s an incredible technical feat.?

Like all of ESA?s planned ATVs, Jules Verne is a disposable cylindrical spacecraft just over 32 feet (10 meters) long, about 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and is powered by four wing-like solar arrays that give it the appearance of a squat dragonfly coasting through space. It is designed to haul up to three times the cargo of Russia?s unmanned Progress freighters, which deliver 2.5 tons of equipment and supplies to station during regular shipments.

Tucked inside the spacecraft?s cargo hold are about 8 tons of supplies, including fresh food, water, rocket propellant and new equipment for the station?s Expedition 16 crew. Handwritten manuscripts by 19th century science fiction writer Jules Verne, after whom ESA?s first ATV is named, are also aboard the spacecraft.

Whitson, Malenchenko and ISS flight engineer Garrett Reisman are scheduled to open the Jules Verne?s hatch for the first time early Friday at 5:30 a.m. EDT (0930 GMT) to set up air scrubbers, then formally enter the spacecraft over the weekend. The astronauts are expected to begin moving cargo out of Jules Verne early Monday, NASA station flight director Brian Smith said after docking.

Jules Verne is the first completely new spacecraft to visit the ISS in nine years, following NASA?s U.S. space shuttles and Russia?s Soyuz and Progress vehicles. But until Thursday?s docking, only Russian spacecraft have flown autonomous missions to the $100 billion space station.

?This accomplishment showcases yet again the progress which has been made by the international partnership in bringing this incredible program to fruition,? NASA chief Michael Griffin said in a statement. ?Together with the arrival of the Columbus module at the ISS earlier this year, the success of the ATV marks the arrival of Europe as a full-fledged space power.?

Astronauts delivered the European-built Columbus lab during a NASA shuttle mission in February.

Jules Verne?s successful docking automatically frees up more than $350 million in funds for the ESA use on other space projects, Dordain said in an interview at the agency?s ESTEC technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, after the rendezvous.

ESA will immediately have access to the monies that had been withheld, totaling about 240 million Euros ($372 million), Dordain said. That money can now be used to support the agency?s Columbus laboratory at the ISS, the launch of a second ATV in 2010 and the construction of a third cargo ship.

Jules Verne in space

In addition to its supply function, ATVs will be used to push the nearly 661,386-pound (300,000-kg) space station into a higher orbit, a function that is regularly needed to compensate for atmospheric drag that pulls the infrastructure into a lower orbit.

Alberto Novelli, ESA?s ATV operations manager, told SPACE.com that the Jules Verne ATV will perform the first of several station-reboost maneuvers in April, with several more to follow before the vehicle is filled with garbage, undocked from the station and burned up over the South Pacific Ocean as it reenters the atmosphere. NASA ISS managers said Wednesday that they are currently targeting an Aug. 7 undocking for Jules Verne.

Novelli conceded that while the ATV always was confident in the vehicle's capabilities, "we never expected [the docking] would go this smoothly."

The Jules Verne ATV launched March 8 (ET) atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe?s South American-based spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana to begin four weeks of orbital trials that culminated in two successful rendezvous tests of its video and laser-based guidance system. A new ATV-only ESA mission control center in Toulouse, France, watched over the massive cargo ship?s 26-day inaugural flight.

?We did some training on this and I?m looking forward to getting yet another module up on station,? Whitson told reporters in a recent interview. ?I think Yuri is looking forward to the challenge of it as well.?

Jules Verne?s successful Thursday docking filled the last open Russian docking port aboard the station, with a Progress cargo ship and Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft taking up the other slots. On April 7, the Russian cargo ship Progress 28 will cast off from the station?s Pirs docking compartment to clear a berth for a new Soyuz spacecraft due to ferry the new Expedition 17 crew to the orbiting lab on April 10, NASA ISS managers said Wednesday. 

In an interview at ESA's ESTEC technology center after the docking, Alan Thirkettle, the agency's space station manager, could not contain his relief.

"Twelve years after we signed the contract [for ATV], we have now done it," Thirkettle said. "It was quite an amazing event — a choreographer's dream."

SPACE.com Senior Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from Washington, D.C. Space News Staff Writer Peter B. de Selding contributed to this report from the European Space Agency?s ESTEC technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands.