Airbus Defence and Space

ATV, twenty thousand leagues above the sea

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is not only a ‘space truck’ supply vehicle and one of Europe’s main contributions to the International Space Station, but could also be the basis of European manned spaceflight.

On 3 April 2008, ‘Jules Verne’, the first European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), moved into its final position before docking with the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft approached the station at 28,000 kmph and, using GPS and laser guiding devices, successfully ‘hit’ a docking target just 60 cm wide. The manoeuvre was completed at 16.52 CEST and ISS crew members were able to enter the ATV without space suits and begin the process of unloading the 4.6 tonnes of supplies, including 1,150 kg of dry cargo, 856 kg of propellant for the Russian Zvezda service module, 270 kg of drinking water and 21 kg of oxygen.


‘Jules Verne’ remained docked to the ISS for six months during which time it used its booster rockets on a number of occasions to correct the ISS’ orbit, was emptied of its supplies and then filled with 2.5 tonnes of waste material. On 5 September 2008, the ATV de-docked from the ISS and moved into a ‘parking’ orbit around the Earth. It remained there until 29 September when it was deorbited, headed towards the Earth’s atmosphere, and disintegrated during a controlled atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

ATV ‘Johannes Kepler’

As the first ATV mission was being destroyed in the Earth’s atmosphere, preparations were already well underway for ATV 2, which has since been named after the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler.

‘Johannes Kepler’ is currently being assembled in Bremen, Germany. The Integrated Cargo Carrier (ICC), which will hold the dry and fluid cargo during the flight, was recently airlifted from Turin to Bremen and by the end of the year will be integrated with the two other main modules: the Equipped Propulsion Bay (EPB) and the Equipped Avionics Bay (EAB). Once the three sections are together ‘Johannes Kepler’ will undergo final subsystem testing, before being shipped to Kouru, French Guiana, from where it will be sent up to the ISS aboard an Ariane 5 ES launcher in February 2011.

The future

The US Space Shuttle will be withdrawn from service sometime in 2011, leaving the partners in the ISS without the possibility of bringing conditioned payloads and equipment back to Earth. To fill this gap, the European Space Agency has been looking into building a transporter that could return cargo and/or humans back to Earth. Research and studies have been made for over a decade. In 1998, it launched the Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator (ARD), which successfully returned to Earth just 4.9 kilometres from its target point, giving Europe its first full-scale experience in controlled atmospheric re-entry.

The next stage is the Advanced Re-entry Vehicle (ARV)*, which was shown to great excitement at this year’s Paris Air Show. Based upon the ATV design, it will enable cargo to be brought back to Earth from the ISS and use heat-shield technology of a similar type to that used on the ARD to allow it to return safely. If the plans are given the go-ahead by European governments, it is possible that the first ARV could be launched in 2016/2017, with the ultimate aim being the eventual launch of European manned spaceflights to the ISS.