A robot freighter designed to send supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) will be launched on February 15, 2011. It will be the European Space Agency’s (ESA) 200th launch, and also its heaviest payload at 20 tons. The Johannes Kepler freighter will be hoisted by an Ariane 5 ES super-rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. Liftoff is set for 2208 GMT.
The unmanned supply ship is scheduled to navigate to the ISS by starlight and dock with it automatically, a feat of precision as yet unmatched by any other space power. A successful mission will boost the case for scientists who want the vehicle to be the template of a manned spacecraft, placing ESA on an equal footing with the United States, Russia, and China.
“We will be working at a speed of around 28,000 kilometers (17,500 miles) per hour and our approach will be at seven centimeters (2.8 inches) a second, so although we are moving at this high speed, we will really be approaching the ISS very gently,” explained mission director Kris Capelle.
The Johannes Kepler, named after the German mathematician of the 16th and 17th centuries who first calculated the movement of planetary bodies in elliptical orbits, is the second of five automated transfer vehicles (ATVs) that the ESA is building for the ISS. The prototype ATV, the Jules Verne, carried out a successful mission in 2008.
If all goes well, its successor will dock with the ISS on February 23, carrying 7.1 tons of fuel, dry goods, oxygen, and a scientific experiment—more than three times the load of Russia’s Progress supply ship. It will then be used as a spare room and for storage, easing the cramped conditions for the ISS crew, and fire its onboard engines to boost the station’s altitude in six steps.
The ISS is in low orbit, but loses altitude because it is tugged by Earth’s atmosphere. It is currently at about 360 kilometers (225 miles) and needs boosting to some 400 kms (250 miles).
On June 4, the Johannes Kepler will undock carrying its payload of trash, human waste, and unwanted hardware, and go on a suicide plunge, burning up over the South Pacific.
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