Europe Sends Huge New Robot Space Freighter to Launch Site
ATV-2 Johannes Kepler being shipped at night on May 10, 2010.
Credit: Astrium

Europe's second robotic space cargo vessel is headed for its South American launch site in preparation for a delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle 2, or ATV-2, a cargo ship built by the European Space Agency (ESA), is slated to launch toward the station in December.

ESA has named the new spacecraft after German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. The first in the disposable robotic cargo ship fleet was named Jules Verne. It flew a successful debut flight in 2008 and destroyed itself intentionally at the end of its mission.

The unmanned space freighter underwent extensive system testing over the last few months, and has now been approved for the final preparation stage prior to its slated launch on an Ariane 5 rocket at the end of 2010.

The ATV Johannes Kepler will now make the journey to Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana in several sections, accompanied by 59 containers containing test equipment. Once it arrives in Kourou, it will be assembled and extensively tested before being loaded with cargo and fuel.

"When the US space shuttle retires, ATV will be the largest vehicle supplying the ISS," said Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA Director for Human Spaceflight. "Considering its technological challenges, like automatic rendezvous and docking, ATV is the most sophisticated space vehicle ever built in Europe."

Europe's debut ATV Jules Verne launched by an Ariane 5 rocket in March 2008 and performed a perfect docking with the ISS.

These cargo vessels are part of ESA's planned fleet of ATVs that will ferry propellants, food, water and equipment to the ISS. The ship has a maximum net cargo capacity of up to 7.7 tons. The composition of this load can vary depending on the specific mission.

Once docked to the space station, an ATV can also help with collision and debris avoidance by using its own engines to correct the station's orbit, compensating for regular loss of altitude due to drag.

At the end of its mission, the vessel is filled with waste and burns up as it heads back into the Earth's atmosphere.

"The technology and experience gained with ATV are assets for Europe and its industrial competitiveness as well as a solid basis for further developments to position Europe among the leaders in the exploitation and exploration of space, in low Earth orbit and beyond," Di Pippo said.

EADS Astrium is the prime contractor for the ATV, under contract to ESA. Astrium is already hard at work on the successor to Johannes Kepler ? ATV-3 'Edoardo Amaldi'.

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