European Cargo Ship Departs Space Station
Jules Verne ATV is seen backing away from the International Space Station from inside the ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) in Toulouse, France. Europe's first ATV undocked from the ISS at 23:29 CEST (21:29 UT) on 5 September 2008.
Credit: ESA.

A European cargo ship the size of a London double-decker bus bid farewell to the International Space Station late Friday after five months docked at the orbiting laboratory.

The European Space Agency?s (ESA) space freighter Jules Verne, the first of a new fleet of Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV), undocked from the station at 5:29 p.m. EDT (2129 GMT) to begin a leisurely, 23-day descent and destruction.

Named after the famed 19th Century French science fiction writer Jules Verne, the $1.9 billion (1.3 billion Euros) cargo ship will spend the next several weeks traveling to the proper orbit to begin its disposal by burning up in the Earth?s atmosphere. The space freighter launched toward the space station on March 8 and docked in early April after a series of rendezvous tests to deliver cargo and precious manuscripts written by its namesake author.

Jules Verne is 32 feet (10 meters) long cylinder with a width of about 15 feet (4.5 meters) and hauled almost 8 tons of cargo - three times the amount delivered aboard Russian Progress spacecraft - to the space station. Since the cargo ship arrived, station astronauts retrieved its contents, used its spacious interior as a washroom, used its four rocket engines to boost the station?s orbit and filled the freighter full of unneeded items and trash for its eventual disposal.

The spacecraft performed so well, mission managers at a control center in Toulouse, France, extended its flight by one extra month. Jules Verne is slated to be destroyed on Sept. 29 when it burns up during reentry over the Pacific Ocean.

?How the ATV has performed highlights extremely well how the benchmark of European space technology has been raised, and the wealth of expertise present in European industry," said Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA?s director of human spaceflight, in a statement. ?This bodes well, not only for future ATV missions to the International Space Station, but also for developments of this kind of technology that may eventually provide Europe with an autonomous cargo return capability and independent access to space for European astronauts.?

ESA officials are providing at least five ATV cargo ships to resupply the space station in return for launch services for its Columbus laboratory delivered to the space station this year, as well as slots for European astronauts on future long-duration missions to the orbital research lab.

Jules Verne is the second cargo ship to leave the space station this week. The Russian space freighter Progress 29 cast off from the station on Monday and will reenter the Earth?s atmosphere for disposal next week.

The next ATV is slated to fly in 2010 and will follow the debut of another space station cargo ship, Japan?s H-2A Transfer Vehicle, set for next year.

?Even though our schedule has been very busy at the ATV Control Centre, I couldn?t have wished for a better mission," said Herv? C?me, ESA?s ATV Jules Verne lead mission director. ?And in just over three weeks, we will be looking forward to the ATV 2 mission in 2010.?