European Cargo Ship Begins Maiden Space Voyage

Europe's First Space Cargo Ship Recovers From Propulsion Glitch
Liftoff of Europe's ATV cargo ship Jules Verne on March, 8, 2008. (Image credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja.)

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

An unmannedEuropean cargo ship named after visionary French writer Jules Verne began itsmaiden voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) late Saturday to deliverfresh food, clothing and vital supplies to the orbiting lab’s astronaut crew.

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

“We areembarking on an extraordinary voyage,” said ESA Director General Jean-JacquesDordain 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 Verneis the first of the ESA’s massive, but disposable, AutomatedTransfer Vehicles (ATV) spacecraft to launch toward the ISS to periodicallyresupply the permanently manned space station.

About thesize 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 16,800pounds (7,620 kg) - about three times that of current Russian cargo ships - offresh supplies to the space station. After six months in space, the spacecraftwill be jettisoned for disposal in Earth’s atmosphere.

By 12:10a.m. EST (0510 GMT), the 1.3 billion euro ($1.9 billion) Jules Verne spacecraftsuccessfully reached its final parking orbit some 162 miles (260 km) aboveEarth to begin a planned four-week shakedown cruise to the ISS. A new ESAmission control center in Toulouse, France is overseeing over the spaceflight,which was delayed one day to allow extra checks on its Arianespace-built Ariane5 rocket.

“As oftoday, ESA is an essential partner of the International Space Station,” Dordainsaid.

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

Thethree-astronaut crew currently aboard the space station - which includes Frenchastronaut Leopold Eyharts - slept through the launch of Jules Verne, butwill 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 andwater to ISS will be a significant enhancement to the ISS cargo transportationcapability," Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy station program manager, hassaid of the new cargo ship.

Jules Vernelaunched just weeks after Europe’s last major contribution, the ESA Columbuslaboratory, was delivered to the space station during a NASA shuttle missionlast month. The new cargo ship features a unique optical-based docking systemthat 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’sliftoff also occurred just days before another shuttle flight, the plannedMarch 11 launch of NASA’s Endeavour orbiter carrying a new Japanese room andCanadian 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) awayfrom the ISS during Endeavour’splanned 16-day mission.

Later thismonth, flight controllers will put Jules Verne through its orbital paces totest its collision avoidance, abort and rendezvous systems during twodemonstration days, on March 29 and March 31, respectively. If the shakedowngoes according to plan, the spacecraft will then attempt its first-ever dockingat the aft end of the station’s Russian-built Zvezda module.

“[JulesVerne] must pass these tests before it will be allowed to initiate the finalrendezvous and docking,” said Brian Smith, NASA’s lead ATV flight director, ina statement.

ESAofficials said they were excited to test their homegrown ATVs, which mark thespace agency’s first spacecraft designed to support astronauts inside as they areunloaded of cargo at the ISS. The technologies developed for Jules Verne andits sister ships to come could aid development to future manned spacecraft inEurope, they added.

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

Tuckedaboard the cylindrical spacecraft were handwrittennotes by Jules Verne, a famed 19th century science fictionwriter who wrote his "De la Terre à la Lune" ("From the Earth tothe Moon") more than 140 years before the spacecraft bearing his namereached space. French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy, ESA's ATV senior advisorastronaut, said that Verne’s name fit Europe’s first spacecraft aimed at aorbital outpost.

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


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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.