Robot Ship "Jules Verne" Set To Head Into Space
Noordwijk (AFP) Apr 9, 2002
Europe on Tuesday unveiled its biggest contribution to the International Space Station (ISS) -- a robot spaceship that is part freighter, part tug.
An assembled test version of the 20-tonne spacecraft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), was presented to the media at the European Space Agency (ESA) research centre here, where it is undergoing safety exercises.
The first ship, due to be launched in late 2004, has been baptised "Jules Verne," in honour of the 19th-century French author who sowed the seeds of space exploration in the minds of millions, ESA said.
"The name Jules Verne was taken because of his fantastic stories. They gave us something to dream about, the future," said Robert Laine, the ATV's project manager.
ESA is one of five agencies contributing to the ISS, which is being assembled in orbit like a giant Meccano set.
The Europeans have earmarked nearly 600 million euros (530 million dollars) to develop the world's most sophisticated automated spacecraft, a freighter capable of hauling up to 7.5 tonnes of food, water, pressured air and fuel up to the ISS crew.
Unmanned, the ATV is designed to be launched from ESA's space centre at Kourou, French Guiana, aboard the giant Ariane-5 rocket.
After being placed in orbit, the craft then heads for the ISS, using fixes from the stars for navigation. When it nears the ISS, it uses a new optical navigation system designed to let it dock with millimetric precision.
It can stay in place for six months, during which the astronauts remove the precious cargo and replace it with trash accumulated during the mission.
The garbage role is essential, because the ISS runs on the principle that "what is sent up must come down" -- if it throws its garbage out into space that could become a perilous orbiting hazard for the spaceships and satellites.
Thrusters aboard the ATV are also used to place the ISS into higher orbit, for the station loses some 200 metres (650 feet) in altitude each day because of the Earth's gravitational pull. Without a nudge from a docked craft or from its own thrusters, the ISS would eventually plummet to Earth in a ball of fire.
After that, the ATV disengages from the ISS and is sent on a final suicide mission -- it uses its own thrusters to dispatch itself Earthward, heading back towards the planet at such a steep angle that it burns up in the upper atmosphere somewhere over the Pacific.
ESA engineers said the spacecraft was equipped with three automatic safety systems, plus override by the ISS crew if need be, to prevent the nightmare of a collision with the station. The docking node itself is the same as the tried-and-tested Progress one, already used on a hundred Soviet and Russian missions.
"The ATV will have to fulfil the demanding requirements of human spacecraft safety and at the same time have enough automatic capabilities to never involve the astronauts in manual rendezvous intervention to dock the ATV with the ISS," European astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy said.
Although the ATV is unmanned, its cargo hold is pressurised, and theoretically it could be used as a temporary refuge for crew in an emergency.
That is a scenario being actively studied because NASA is axing a "lifeboat" ship, the Crew Rescue Vehicle, because of budget cuts, ESA officials said.
If the ATV is a success, Europe will become only the second space power, alongside the Russians' veteran ship the Progress, to have a fully automated space freighter. The Americans have only used manned craft for docking.
Unmanned abilities are vital if the world wants to be serious about manned interplanetary trips. Spaceships that are large and comfortable enough for long human trips to Mars and so on would probably have to be assembled piece by piece in orbit.
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