Ariane puts cargo vessel in orbit to supply space station

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The Independent Online

An unmanned Ariane rocket has successfully put a cargo vessel into orbit in Europe's first mission to supply the International Space Station.

The modified Ariane-5 blasted off from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 1.03am yesterday carrying a20-tonne pod filled with oxygen, fuel, food and clothes for the ISS crew of three astronauts.

The project was a "major challenge" for Europe's space programme, said the European Space Agency, which has developed the cargo vessel to continue making deliveries to the ISS once Nasa's space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. The ISS is a $100bn (£50bn) project shared by 15 nations but the European Space Agency's provision of the cargo vessel, or automatic transfer vehicle, and other components exempts it from payment towards the station's operating costs. Officials say the ATV programme has cost $2bn.

The ISS, still under construction, is 60 per cent complete and includes the European Columbus laboratory, which was delivered to the ISS last month by a space shuttle. The crew is expected to double in number next year, which means it will need more supplies. "I hope that the ATVs will be able to supply the station when the shuttle will no longer be in service," said Michael Griffin, Nasa's administrator.

The European Space Agency is planning a further four ATVs for the space station and, as the retirement date for the shuttle fleet nears, Nasa is in negotiations for more. That is expected to leave a gap in US access to the station – and increase European access – until the US can develop and operate a new generation of space vehicles.

The vessel, named the "Jules Verne" after the 19th century French writer, was carrying nine tonnes of freight and separated from the Ariane rocket an hour after launch. It will remain in a "parking orbit" until 3 April, when it should dock automatically with the ISS.

"This is a challenge because the ATV must rendezvous with the space station and the two vehicles will be travelling at 28,000 kilometres an hour," said an ESA astronaut, Jean-Francois Clervoy. "The link-up must be made with extreme precision. We must get this absolutely right if we are to go further to the moon or Mars." Once docked, the ISS crew will spend the next six months emptying it of its cargo and refilling it with rubbish before thrusting it back towards Earth.