The space shuttle fleet, for all its sophisticated engineering, is basically an orbital delivery truck. It’s also nearing a well-earned retirement, and this week the world gets a close look at its replacement: a pilotless, fully automated spaceship.
The Jules Verne is the first of seven probable Automated Transfer Vehicles, built by the European Space Agency to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. On Thursday at 9:40 am EST the 20.7-ton ATV will make its first rendezvous with the station. French engineers at an ESA command center in Toulouse, France, have been testing the craft in orbit over the past two days, bringing the delivery ship into the first phases of a docking approach and evaluating how it handles abort scenarios. The navigation software, solar arrays and collision avoidance systems have all worked fine; apart from a slight inconsistency between the oxidizer and propellant in the fuel mix, the flight has been perfect. For the past several days the Jules Verne has been lingering 1000 miles away from the ISS, the two spacecraft circling the planet together until showtime.
This is only the latest unmanned vehicle to resupply the ISS; Russian Progress modules have been ferrying cargo back and forth for years. But the Jules Verne can carry twice as much water and three times as much dry cargo. It can also haul away 14,330 pounds of waste per trip, about 10,000 pounds more garbage and human excreta than its Russian equivalent.
A Progress module could be guided into its dock by astronauts inside the ISS—with the new ATVs, station residents can only abort the procedure if something goes wrong. The ‘abort’ command triggers software that maneuvers the vehicle away from the station and positions it with its solar arrays pointed toward the sun. Also, the ground crew in Toulouse monitors the flights closely and can end the orbital coupling. On Earth and above it, the only available view of the procedure will be provided by a camera fitted with an optical alignment device overlaid with telemetry data. On Thursday, all eyes will be fixed to the video screen as a computer gently guides the two fragile spacecraft together.