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Europe set for record-breaking space launch

Posted June 3, 2013

Nearly 40 years ago, European countries worried by US and Soviet dominance of space gave the green light to the first Ariane rocket, a wee launcher capable of hoisting a satellite payload of just 1.8 tonnes—the equivalent mass of two small cars.

On Wednesday, the fifth and mightiest generation of Arianes is set to take a whopping 20.2 tonnes into orbit, a cargo craft the size of a double-decker bus and a record for Europe, proud engineers say.

The payload is the fourth cargo delivery by the European Space Agency (ESA) to the International Space Station (ISS), bringing food, water, oxygen, scientific experimentsand special treats to the orbiting crew.

An Ariane 5 ES is scheduled to blast off from ESA’s base at Kourou in French Guiana at 6:52 pm (2152 GMT) Wednesday, taking aloft an Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a robot space truck dubbed the Albert Einstein.

The cargo craft will carry almost seven tonnes of dry and fluid cargo for its five-month mission.

About an hour after liftoff, somewhere over New Zealand, the ATV, some 10 metres (33 feet) long, will detach from the rocket’s upper stage and then deploy its four energy-generating solar panels and navigate autonomously, guided by starlight, to the space station.

It will dock with the ISS on July 15 at an altitude of about 400 kilometres (250 miles) above the planet.

“By then it has a velocity of 28,000 kilometres (18,000 miles) per hour, and has to fly to a destination (the docking mechanism) about 60 cm (23 inches) in width,” said Bart Reijnen, head of orbital systems at the Astrium space company which built the lifeline craft.

“It has to fly there fully autonomously and dock with this target of 60 cm with a precision of six cm (2.4 inches). That is something that might be difficult to imagine.”

The craft has enough fuel to make three docking attempts if something were to go wrong during the final approach, said Jean-Michel Bois, ATV operations manager in Toulouse, France, from where the vessel’s flight path will be monitored.

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