Jules Verne takes flight into space

A brand new European spacecraft that could one day be converted to carry astronauts blasted off for the International Space Station today. The space tug, named Jules Verne after the early sci-fi writer, is bigger than a double-decker bus.

Artist's impression of Jules Verne docked to ISSIt soared into orbit atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana.

The robotic craft, termed an Automated Transfer Vehicle, is the most advanced spaceship ever built in Europe. It has a revolutionary, laser-guided autopilot system to allow it to dock automatically with the space station.

But the 20-ton ship will not do so until April 3 at the earliest because it will wait for the shuttle Endeavour, due to launch on Tuesday to complete its own mission.

The ATV is designed to carry cargo. But it is bigger than the Apollo command module and could easily be converted to a manned space ship if European politicians decide to do so.

Nasa boss Mike Griffin commented: “It occurs to me that it’s a fairly short step to go from the ATV to something that can carry crew. It’s only a short step from there to an independent European manned spaceflight capability.”

Mission controllers in Toulouse, France, will put the craft through many complex maneouvres to test thoroughly that everything is working successfully.

The Jules Verne’s cargo includes 1,100 lbs of food, 300 lbs of spare parts for Europe’s new Columbus module of the space station – plus fresh clothes for the astronauts up there.

The ATV is scheduled to fly to the ISS every 17 months or so. Previous supplies have been delivered by shuttles or Russian rockets.

Daniel Sacotte, of ESA, said after the launch: “Last month, with the docking of Columbus, Europe got its own flat in the ISS building. With the launch of the first ATV, we now have our own delivery truck.”

Space station astronauts will enter the Jules Verne to unload its cargo and fill it with rubbish during its four-month visit. In August, it will undock and be steered to burn up over the Pacific.

Picture: An artist’s impression of Jules Verne docked to ISS.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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