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Successful launch for third ATV Edoardo Amaldi

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Mar 23, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen— Europe successfully launched its third cargo ship, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Edoardo Amaldi, today, putting it en route to the International Space Station.

The unmanned spacecraft rocketed into the sky like a flaming torch in a lift-off that turned night into day at the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana.

The ATV-3, packed with supplies of food, water, air and propellant for the space station, was the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane rocket, weighing in at around 20 tonnes. Including the rocket itself, 777 tonnes was hoisted from the launchpad.

Lift-off happened at 04.34 UT and the highly sophisticated space truck, named after Italian physicist and spaceflight pioneer Edoardo Amaldi, was due to take just over an hour to reach orbit.

Ariane 5 flight VA205 began the ATV-3's journey, lifting the robotic craft into an initial circular orbit 260 km high. Then the ATV-3 began a series of engine burns to to bring its altitude and speed gradually into line with the International Space Station's.

After launch, ESA's Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said: "ATV-3 demonstrates Europe's capacity to deliver regular high-profile missions to support demanding crewed spaceflight operations, in coordination with our international partners."

Amaldi was a founding father of the European Space Research Organisation – a forerunner of ESA – and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Until private US company SpaceX begins its Dragon flights there, Europe's ATV ships will be the only spacecraft other than Russian rockets to service the orbiting outpost, following retirement of the Space Shuttle.

SEN graphic by Ben Gililand

SEN graphic by Ben Gilliland

Once it automatically docks with the ISS's Russian Zvezda module in five days time, the ATV-3 will use its own thrusters to raise the Station’s orbit from time to time to compensate for the natural decay caused by atmospheric drag.

The ship can also be used to move the ISS safely out of the way of potentially dangerous space debris that come too close to the manned laboratory.

After spending close to six months docked to the space station, the Edoardo Amaldi will become a garbage truck, filled with rubbish bags and unwanted hardware by the ISS crew. It will then be sent out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean.

Today's successful launch, which had been delayed from March 9, follows the missions of the first two ATV spacecraft Jules Verne and Johannes Kepler. The ships are named after famous European figures from science and culture and the next, to be launched in 2013 and 2014, will be named Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaître.