ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) may have what appears to be a rather prosaic mission – supply of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), and removal of rubbish from it, but it is in fact the largest, most complex space vehicle ever built in Europe, and also the first vehicle in the world to execute rendez-vous and docking in fully automated mode.
It was required to ‘hit’ a target only 60cm in diameter travelling at 28,000km/h with precision of 10cm and a relative speed of less than 7cm/s. For its design and development, the ATV drew on the experience acquired by European industry – in particular the unique expertise of prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space. The launch of the nearly 20-tonne vehicle required a new, dedicated version of Ariane 5, the Ariane 5 ES equipped with a re-ignitable upper stage. This re-ignition capability had been tested more than 100 times on the ground and demonstrated in an operational flight in October 2007. Lift-off of the ATV took place on 9 March 2008 on Flight 181 to a low circular obit inclined at 51.6° relative to the equator, an unusual launch trajectory that required deployment of two telemetry tracking stations, one on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean and the other in the Azores. The Ariane 5 ES upper stage performed an initial eight-minute burn over the Atlantic and entered a 45-minute coasting phase, flying over Europe and Asia before reigniting exactly as planned for a 40-minute second circularisation burn over Australia. Separation of the ATV, dubbed the ‘Jules Verne’, occurred at 06:09 CET. Less than a month later, on 3 April 2008, the ATV performed a perfect docking with the ISS, and history was made once again.