PONTE VEDRA, Florida — The fifth and final European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) on Aug. 12 made a smooth automatic docking to the international space station where it will deliver some 7,200 kilograms of food, water, fuel and supplies.
Two weeks after its July 29 launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on South America’s northeast coast, the ATV-5, named after Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre, proceeded through its standard series of advance-and-hold maneuvers to validate the safety of its approach before docking with its port on Russia’s Zvesda module at an altitude of about 410 kilometers.
ATVs are equipped with videometers to guide themselves to Zvesda without any intervention from the crew. The videometers send laser pulses to a reflector on the Zvesda module for precision orientation during final approach. All ATV dockings have gone smoothly since the first occurred in 2008.
ATV’s Russian-designed docking system enables it to attach itself to any docking port compatible with Russia’s Soyuz manned capsules and Progress unmanned supply freighters.
But because of the ATV’s role in raising the station’s orbit, it docks at the “rear” of the orbital complex to be able to accelerate the 420,400-kilogram station and raise its orbit with minimal effect on the station’s solar arrays and other gear. ATV-5 carries nearly 2,200 kilograms of propellant to be used mainly to raise the station’s orbit.
Before its final approach, ATV-5 performed an unusual “fly under” maneuver, passing beneath the orbital complex at a distance of 4.8 kilometers to test technologies for future inspection and eventual rendezvous with so-called “non-cooperative” targets such as dead satellites to be removed from orbit.
ATV-5 then moved in front of the station, above it and finally behind it before it began its approach sequence.
Station astronauts will validate the leak-proof link between ATV-5 and Zvesda, then flush ATV-5 with air before entering it on Aug. 14.
In addition to the standard life necessities on board the vehicle, the astronauts will be receiving a specially prepared tiramisu Italian cake and capsules of Italian coffee to be used with a coffeemaker designed for the station by a well-known Italian coffeemaker. Europe’s next astronaut to be sent to the station is Italian national Samantha Cristoforetti, set for launch in November.
The 20,000-kilogram ATV-5 will remain at the station until January, when it will undock and be guided by European ground controllers to an atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.
The 20-nation European Space Agency developed ATV to pay in kind its 8.3 percent share of the station’s common operating costs. The fifth ATV takes care of European obligations — to NASA, as the station’s general contractor — until late 2017.
To meet its obligations through 2020, which up to now is as far as Europe has been able to go in committing to the station, ESA is using ATV technologies to provide NASA with a service module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle for one Orion mission and spare parts for a second.
ESA’s decision to end the ATV program after five vehicles remains a subject of debate in Europe. Some had argued that the station partners should together order a sixth ATV to help to de-orbit the space station. The alternative — using up to three Russian Progress vessels, all much smaller than ATV — is more complicated.
ESA had said at the time of its decision that its role is to perform research and development, and not to build recurrent models of the same hardware, even for vehicles as sophisticated as ATV.