CBS NEWS Coverage of Breaking Space News
Posted: 01:00 AM, 3/9/08
By William Harwood
Changes and additions:
03/08/08 (01:00 AM): ATV ' ' launched
01:00 AM, 03/09/08, Update: ATV ' ' launched
A powerful Ariane 5 rocket roared to life and streaked away from its jungle launch pad on the northern coast of South American late today, boosting the 's state-of-the-art " " automated space station supply craft into orbit on a long-awaited maiden voyage.
With its hydrogen-fueled main engine firing at full throttle, a pair of solid-fuel boosters ignited with a rush of fire at 11:03:04 p.m. EST Saturday, lighting up the sky for miles around as the huge rocket climbed away through a light drizzle.
The Ariane 5 quickly disappeared from view but telemetry indicated the rocket performed as expected, lofting the 42,672-pound ATV - the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane rocket - into its planned initial orbit. After a long orbital coast and a second upper stage rocket firing, the spacecraft was released on its own at 12:10 a.m., prompting a round of applause in mission control. A half hour later, four solar arrays unfolded as expected.
The initial success of the ATV mission, coming just a few weeks after attachment of ESA's Columbus research module on the , opens a new frontier in European space operations.
"With this launch of the ATV, we are embarking on an extraordinary voyage," said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain. "As of today, ESA is an essential partner of the ."
Said Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration: "Last month, with the docking of Columbus, got its own flat in the ISS building. With the launch of the first ATV, we now have our own delivery truck. We have become co-owners of the ISS, now we are about to become fully-fledged partners in running it. With the ATV we will be servicing the ISS by delivering cargo and providing orbital reboost."
The is the first of at least five ATVs being built by the as part of a $7 billion investment in the international space station project. That figure includes the cost of the ATV, ESA's Columbus research module and the ground infrastructure required to operate them.
"The ATV is the heaviest and most complex vehicle ever developed at ESA," said Dordain. "The heaviest, because at liftoff it weighs over 20 tons and is carrying nine tons of cargo. The most complex because at one and the same time, it's a launcher stage, a satellite when it's in free flight and a part of the manned infrastructure when it is docked. It is a unique vehicle allowing for automatic rendezvous with the ISS which, since the arrival of the Columbus, ESA is now a joint owner."
If all goes well, the ATV will deliver some 10,100 pounds of cargo to the space station, about three times the capacity of a Russian Progress supply ship. About the size of a British double-decker bus, the ATV can deliver propellant to the station or directly raise the orbit of the lab using its own thrusters.
That's a major factor in 's planning as the U.S. space agency prepares to retire the shuttle in 2010.
"The ATV as a logistics vehicle carries almost three times the hardware and fuel and water and oxygen that a Progress can carry for us," said Mike Suffredini, space station program manager for . "So it is a major contribution to the program. Probably more significantly will be post 2010 when the shuttle is no longer available for us to do much of the logistics work it does. To me, that's a key part of what the automated transfer vehicle brings to the program."
Said NASA Administrator : "I'm really looking forward to the availability of the ATV as a cargo delivery option. In fact, the more that we can utilize crew at station, the more support they're going to need from cargo. And I think with the ATV, we'll have a fine future in that role."
The , using laser sensors and complex flight control software, will dock with the aft port of the . But not right away. Because this is a maiden voyage, European flight controllers plan an elaborate series of tests to check out the ATV's control, navigation and propulsion systems before attempting a docking for real on April 3.
After a simulated collision avoidance maneuver March 12, the ATV will stage two relatively close approaches to the station on March 29 and 31 to make sure the craft can safely abort an approach when the docking is attempted for real on April 3.
With ATV safely on its way, will focus on launching the early Tuesday on a 16-day space station assembly mission featuring five spacewalks. Endeavour is scheduled to return to Earth on March 26, clearing the way for the ATV rendezvous tests and docking.
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