The next Automated Transfer Vehicle (A T V) to be launched to supply the International Space Station (ISS) has been officially named. Currently being assembled in Germany, the next ATV will honour the great 17th Century German scientist, Johannes Kepler.
The very first ATV was named after the legendary French science fiction writer, Jules Verne, and launched on an extended 5 month mission to the orbiting outpost where it delivered supplies, gave the station a helpful re-boost and then carried out an extreme garbage disposal effort, burning up over the Pacific Ocean on September 5th, 2008.
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After it is launched on a similar resupply mission in 2010, the same fate awaits ATV Johannes Kepler. Or does it…
The ATV is Europe’s most advanced spacecraft ever built. Last year, Jules Verne wowed the world as it was launched into orbit, completed a flyby of the station (at a distance of 30 km) and then carried out a series of tests (including the critical Collision Avoidance Manoeuvre) before waiting in a parking orbit, 2000 km from its destination.
This was a particularly busy time for the ISS as Jules Verne had to wait for Space Shuttle Endeavour to finish its mission (STS-123) to attach the Japanese Kibo module and Canadian robotic arm. After Endeavour returned to Earth, the ATV was clear to dock on April 3rd.
So next year, it will be ATV Johannes Kepler’s turn to carry out a fully automated docking procedure with the space station to deliver food, water, propellant and oxygen. As with Jules Verne, Johannes Kepler is expected to provide a re-boost option, pushing the ISS to a slightly higher orbit.
However, Johannes Kepler might be saved from the fiery re-entry its predecessor had to endure. The European Space Agency, overjoyed at the success of Jules Verne, has asked the space industry for advice on how the ATV might be upgraded, to allow for the safe return of cargo to Earth and possible astronaut transportation. A feasibility study was approved at a meeting in The Hague in November 2008.
Interestingly, there will be another mission already in space in 2010 bearing the same name as the second ATV. The exoplanet-hunting Kepler telescope is set for launch next month.