The ATV homing in on the International Space Station

Europe's final space cargo docks at space station

The European Space Agency’s Georges Lemaître space cargo vehicle has arrived at the International Space Station. 

The fifth from the family of the Automated Transfer Vehicles, Georges Lemaître performed a fully automated docking on Tuesday afternoon, attaching itself to the station’s Zvezda module where it will stay connected for the next six months.

“From 39km to just 250m from the station, ATV navigated itself using relative satnav signals, in which both the station and ATV compare their positions using GPS,” said Jean-Michel Bois, leading the Esa operations team at the ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France.

“For the final 250m, ATV navigated using a ‘videometer’ and ‘telegoniometer’, which use laser pulses to calculate the distance and orientation to the station.”

Esa, which developed and built the ATV family as its contribution to the multi-national International Space Station Project, won’t continue with its production and will focus on building a power and propulsion module for Nasa’s deep-space Orion capsule, advancing ATV’s technological legacy.

Georges Lemaître delivered a record amount of cargo to the space station – overall 6,532kg of fuel, water, science gear, food and other supplies. The cargo includes a European-built electromagnetic levitator, which will be used to suspend and heat metal samples in weightlessness with the goal of improving industrial casting processes.

In the coming days, ATV will reboost the space station’s altitude using its thrusters to counter the residual atmospheric drag and gravity, which would otherwise cause the space station to eventually crash to the Earth.

Once the crew unpacks the ship, it will be loaded with trash and equipment no longer needed on the station. In late January, ATV-5 will be detached from the station and sent back to Earth to burn in the atmosphere together with its load.

Esa developed the ATV in 2008 ahead of the 2011 Space Shuttle retirement. For over a year, until US companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences delivered their respective vehicles and commenced private resupply missions for Nasa, ATV was the only means for delivering cargo to the station together with Russia’s Progress spacecraft.

With a full line-up of space cargo vehicles now available, Esa will focus on its cooperation with Lockheed Martin to help develop the Orion space capsule, which is designed to carry four astronauts to destinations beyond the space station including asteroids, the Moon and Mars.

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