The Ariane 5 rocket lifts off from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana with ATV Albert Einstein aboard

Europe's heaviest space cargo launched

The heaviest cargo space ship ever built by the European Space Agency (ESA) took off for its journey to the International Space Station (ISS) with a 3D-printed tool box aboard. 

The 20,190kg ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) Albert Einstein, 150kg heavier than its predecessor ATV Edoardo Amaldi, was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, late on Wednesday 5 June. 

The fourth of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicles is not only the largest, but also the most advanced, most capable and most autonomous of all cargo ships currently servicing the station.

Among the 1,400 items of ATV-4’s 2,480kg of dry cargo currently on the way to the orbital outpost is also one rather special unit – a lightweight 3D-printed toolbox manufactured by ESA’s Italian contractor Thales Alenia Space.

“The toolbox is designed to store tools for maintaining Europe’s Columbus research module,” explains ESA’s project leader, Bram Bekooy. “At the moment, there are five separate bags that tools are stored in, but crewmen have complained that this set-up is cumbersome and time-consuming.” To avoid drifting away in microgravity, the toolbox is equipped with clips to hold it in place and has Velcro covering.

Using 3D-printed tools has clear advantages, as any broken or lost equipment can easily be reprinted using the existing data stored in a computer. “Similarly, making any improvements we might decide on will be only a matter of updating the computer model,” Bekooy said. Following this pilot project, future long-duration missions could carry their own 3D printers in space to print out failed parts immediately.

However, according to ESA’s director general Jean Jacques Dordain, the agency already has its mind set on the next generation ATV-5. “This adventure is still in the making – ATV-4 is flying but ATV-5 is following and ATV technologies will survive beyond them in promising new programmes, such as Nasa’s Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, for which ESA is developing the service module”, Dordain said.

Albert Einstein will spend over four months docked to the ISS’s Zvezda module, during which it will provide extra storage room and a quiet rest area for the astronauts. It also offers a powerful manoeuvring capability to raise the Station’s altitude to combat natural orbital decay and, if required, to steer it out of the way of dangerous space debris. At the end of its mission, filled with waste, it will undock on 28 October and make a safe controlled re-entry over the South Pacific. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon, the ATV is not re-usable and will burn in the atmosphere during the descent.

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