Cargo carrier begins flight to International Space Station

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The European Space Agency’s unmanned supply craft Johannes Kepler is en route to the International Space Station (ISS) after a successful launch yesterday.

ESA’s second automated transfer vehicle (ATV) will deliver food, dry cargo, propellants and gases, as well as the Geoflow II experiment, which scientists will use to study processes in the Earth’s mantle.

The space-cargo carrier separated from the upper stage of the Ariane launcher at an altitude of 260km and is approaching the ISS autonomously using GPS, radar and optical sensors.

The ATV-2 will then dock automatically with the Russian service module Zvezda, where it will remain for at least three months. On 4 June at the earliest, the transporter will undock from the ISS and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere during a controlled re-entry.

‘This launch takes place in a crowded and changing [environment] for the ISS access, with HTV, Progress, ATV and the Shuttle coming and going,’ said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general.

Weighing 20,100kg, Johannes Kepler is the heaviest payload to be carried by a member of the Ariane family.

It follows the successful mission in 2008 of the Jules Verne ATV-1, which demonstrated the reliability of the new technology.

Knowledge obtained from this first flight was incorporated in the design of Johannes Kepler. This craft has two more cubic metres of usable volume and can transport, resulting in an additional 300kg of payload. Johannes Kepler will also be used to boost the orbit of the ISS through using its engines — each manoeuvre will raise the altitude of orbit by five to seven kilometres.

Work now continues on the construction of ATV-3, -4 and -5. ATV-3 is scheduled for delivery to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana this summer and its launch is planned for February/March 2012. The other ATV launches will follow at one-year intervals

‘This confirms ATV’s role as a critical resupply vehicle for the Space Station. Right now, integration for the next vehicle in line, Edoardo Amaldi, will be finished in Europe in August 2011 and production is under way for ATV-4 and -5,’ added Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA’s director for human spaceflight.

As the second of Europe’s ‘space trucks’, the automated transfer vehicle Johannes Kepler, soars into orbit, EADS Astrium’s Wolfgang Paetsch is already thinking of its successor. Click here to read more.