A European spacecraft finally docked with the International Space Station today in a landmark event for the orbiting outpost. The successful link-up by the space tug Jules Verne was carried out using automatic laser-guided systems, boosting Europe’s role as a major player in the ISS project.
Although the craft, called an Automated Transfer Vehicle, is currently designed to carry cargo, it could eventually be adapted to become a manned spaceship.
The ship looked like something out of Star Wars thanks to its four long solar panels stretching out in the shape of an “X”. For several minutes, it sat 62ft away from its target awaiting the final command to approach.
Then space scientists at Houston, Moscow and Toulouse, all watched intently as the 20-ton spacecraft closed in silently for a perfect docking at 3.45 pm UK time with the Russian Zvezda service module of the ISS.
Both spacecraft were zipping around the Earth at nearly five miles per second in an amazing example of formation flying. But their approach was carried out slowly to avoid any risk of a collision that could have jeopardised the space station and its astronauts’ lives.
The craft had already made two flawless approaches to the orbiting outpost this week to demonstrate that its automatic laser-guided navigation systems were working well.
During dress rehearsals it also responded perfectly to an “Escape” command from astronauts aboard the space station, 212 miles above the Earth, by withdrawing to a safe distance.
The Jules Verne is carrying 1,100 lbs of food, fresh clothes for astronauts on the space station plus a hardback copy of From The Earth To The Moon by sc-fi writer Jules Verne. Also on board are 300 lbs of spare parts for Europe’s new Columbus module which was attached to the space station in February.
Space station astronauts will enter the Jules Verne to unload its cargo and fill it with rubbish during its four-month visit. The craft’s thrusters will also be used several times to boost the space station to a higher orbit to counter a gradual downward drift.
The Jules Verne was launched way back on March 9 but has had to wait patiently in space while the shuttle Endeavour arrived and completed its own mission to the space station. In August, the ship will undock and be steered to burn up over the Pacific.
Picture: The Jules Verne pictured from the ISS during a docking rehearsal. (ESA).
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