Europe?sfirst unmanned cargo ship is poised to make its inaugural docking at theInternational Space Station (ISS) Thursday after two successful dressrehearsals.
Following weeksof shakedown tests, the European Space Agency?s (ESA) automatedcargo ship Jules Verne is due to dock at the space station at about 10:40a.m. EDT (1440 GMT), with the outpost?s three-person crew keeping a watchfuleye on their incoming visitor.
?Weobviously want to keep close tabs on it as it approaches,? station commanderPeggy Whitson told reporters in a recent interview.
About thesize of a London double-decker bus, the 21-ton Jules Verne spacecraft is thefirst of ESA?s new fleet of AutomatedTransfer Vehicles (ATVs) to rendezvous with the ISS. Tucked aboard theorbital freighter are manuscripts written by its namesake, the 19th century sciencefiction writer Jules Verne, and a fresh load of supplies for the station?sExpedition 16 crew.
The JulesVerne ATV is about 32 feet (10 meters) long, 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and cancarry about three times the 2.5-ton cargo shipments delivered to the ISS byunmanned Russian Progress vehicles. ESA officials have said it will be thelargest cargo carrier to the station once NASA?s space shuttle fleet retires in2010. If today?s docking is unsuccessful, a second attempt could be made onSaturday, they added.
NASA?sdeputy ISS program manager Kirk Shireman told reporters Wednesday that JulesVerne?s planned orbital arrival today has sparked excitement among flightcontrollers at the U.S. agency, as well as their counterparts in Europe andRussia.
?It?sreally been exciting?a great time to be part of the space station program,?Shireman said.
JulesVerne launched into orbit on March 8 (ET) from Europe?s SouthAmerican-based spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The spacecraft spent severalweeks in orbit performing a series of intricate collision avoidance maneuversbefore catching up to the space station, where NASA?s shuttle Endeavour astronautswere hard at work adding a Japanese room and Canadian robot to the orbitinglab.
Afterwaiting patiently for Endeavour?s departure last week, Jules Verne?s flightcontrol team at the ESA?s dedicated ATV Control Center in Toulouse, France,ordered the autonomous spacecraft to make two approaches to the ISS that testedits video and laser-based rendezvous system.
Asuccessful March 29 rendezvous parked the spacecraft at a waypoint about 2miles (3.5 kilometers) from the station. That test was followed by a closerapproach on Monday, where Jules Verne hovered just 36 feet (11 meters) fromthe aft docking compartment of the station?s Russian-built Zvezda servicemodule. Malenchenko and Whitson successfully commanded Jules Verne to back awayfrom the station using their only means of control over the spacecraft, a redbutton reserved for emergencies if the vehicle strays off course, to end the Mondaydemonstration.
?Theysuccessfully passed the tests,? said Holly Ridings, NASA?s lead Expedition 16flight director, on Wednesday. ?It was very close to the space station,hovering right behind the service module aft of where it will dock.?
Russia?sspace station Mission Control Center in Korolev, outside Moscow, and its NASAcounterpart in at the Johnson Space Center in Houston will also be watchingover today?s docking attempt.
NASA will provide live coverage of the Jules Verne ATV?sspace station docking on NASA TV beginning at 8:00 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT). Click here for SPACE.com?s ISS missioncoverage and NASA TV feed.
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