Esa has dispatched the final ATV to deliver cargo to the ISS saying its engineers will use the technology to develop systems for Nasa’s deep space spacecraft.
Named Georges Lemaître, after the Belgian scientist who first formulated the Big Bang Theory, the cargo ship was lifted to space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s cosmodrome in Kourou, French Guiana, shortly before midnight (GMT) on Tuesday.
The fifth and the last from the ATV family, Georges Lemaître, will bring about 6,602kg of supplies, including 2,681 kg of dry cargo and 3,921 kg of water, propellants and gases to the orbital outpost.
However, instead of flying directly, the vehicle will take a two-week detour to conduct scientific experiments, before eventually docking at the station on 12 August.
The journey will include flying around the Station to test the LIRIS laser infrared imaging sensor, which could form the basis of future guidance, navigation and control systems for rendezvous with targets without purpose-built docking ports or space debris.
During the final approach, the two LIRIS infrared cameras and a laser sensor will be turned on about 3.5km away from the station to keep acquiring data throughout the rendezvous procedure to create a virtual 3D model of the Station.
Although Esa will not build more ATVs, its engineers will further advance the technology developed during the project, to be used as part of Nasa’s Orion capsule, designed to open new frontiers of space exploration to mankind.
"Six years after its maiden flight, the ATV is still a unique vehicle demonstrating what Esa and European industry can do in serving European cooperation and innovation,” said Esa’s Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain. “This demonstration has convinced Nasa to use the service module of ATV for their future crew transportation system."
The agency’s director of Human Spaceflight and former astronaut Thomas Reiter commented: “It is with great pride that we saw the fifth successful launch of this beautiful spacecraft," said Thomas Reiter, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations
"But the adventure doesn't end here. ATV knowhow and technology will fly again to space as early as 2017 powering NASA's Orion spacecraft with the European Service Module, ushering in the next generation of space exploration."
ATV's approach to the ISS will be monitored by Esa astronaut Alexander Gerst, who has been living on the Station since 29 May. The cargo vehicle will remained docked to the station for six months before being sent back filled with waste to burn during re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Among the cargo to be delivered to the space station are several scientific experiments including an electromagnetic levitator for experiments to improve industrial casting processes or a sophisticated joystick to test the use of force feedback in a weightless environment.
Georges Lemaître is also carrying a piece of the Campo del Cielo meteorite that fell to Earth over 4,000 years ago. The space rock will subsequently recreate its original voyage when it burns up in the atmosphere.