Europe's Final ATV Launches to ISS

Europe's Final ATV Launches to ISS

The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana tonight (July 29) on time at 7:47 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The ATV program will come to a close about 6 months from now when ATV-5 undocks from the International Space Station (ISS) and burns up during reenty.

ATV delivers dry cargo as well as air, water and propellant.  ATV-5 is carrying about 8 metric tons of supplies and equipment, including a record 2,695 kilograms of dry cargo.  Among the science experiments is an Electromagnetic Levitator for studying metals suspended in weightlessness as they are heated to 1600 degrees Celsius and then allowed to cool.

Assuming all goes well, docking is scheduled for August 12 at 9:43 am EDT.  During the two week period between launch and docking, ATV-5 will test new rendezvous sensors that could be used on future European spacecraft.

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is aboard the ISS and expected to be the first one to open the spacecraft on orbit.  ATV-5 will remain attached to the ISS for about 6 months.  A less glamorous but decidedly important task for ATV and other ISS cargo spacecraft that are not designed to survive reentry is as trash receptacles.  ATV-5 one will be filled with trash over the months it is part of ISS.  It and the trash will burn up as it descends through the dense layers of the atmosphere. 

Each of the five ATV’s has been named after persons of distinction. ATV-5 is named after Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian priest and physicist widely credited as the father (or one of the fathers) of the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe.

Under the original agreement among the space station partners, Europe was to provide nine ATVs.   ESA decided to end the series after just five and is now cooperating with NASA on building the service module for the first two Orion spacecraft.  The Orion service module will be based on the ATV service module.  ESA is building two Orion service modules on a no-exchange-of-funds basis as part of ISS barter arrangements to pay for common operating costs for the facility.

ESA lauds the Orion agreement as the first time NASA has allowed it to be “in the critical path” on a human spaceflight program, providing essential (rather than nice-to-have) components.  The first two Orions are expected to be launched in 2017 (without a crew) and 2021 (with a crew).  Eventually Orion spacecraft are intended to take crews beyond low Earth orbit.  There is no agreement on who will built the service modules for any of the other Orions.

The ISS will continue to be supplied by two U.S. commercial cargo spacecraft (Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon), Russia’s Progress, and Japan’s HTV.

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