March 7, 2008
Posted: 09:54 AM ET
Crews have been manning the International Space Station continuously since late 2000, and in all that time there have really only been three ways to get supplies from Earth to orbit. They can go up in the space shuttle's cargo hold, they can be packed into an unmanned Russian "Progress" re-supply ship, or they can be squeezed in with passengers on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
That is, until now. If all goes as planned, a new European supply ship called the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is set to launch on Saturday night atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the Ariane Launch Complex Number 3 in Kourou, French Guiana.
Christened "Jules Verne," this unmanned spacecraft will be the first of five ATV's launched to the ISS at a rate of one every year and a half or so.
It is designed to deliver more than 8 tons of cargo to the ISS - everything from food and drinking water to air, propellants and scientific equipment.
Once docked to the Russian Zvezda Service Module on the station, the ATV will remain there for about 6 months. From time to time, flight controllers will fire its rocket thrusters to boost the ISS to a higher altitude, as the station's orbit naturally degrades over time.
After crew members unpack it, they will gradually fill it back up with trash. After it undocks, it will be programmed for a controlled reentry to the atmosphere, and should burn up completely over the Pacific Ocean.
This maiden flight of the ATV comes just a month after shuttle Atlantis astronauts delivered and installed the station's European Columbus laboratory. And, if all goes as planned, the ISS will expand again next week when astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour arrive with the first piece of the Japanese Kibo laboratory.
The "Jules Verne" launch is scheduled for 11:03pm Eastern on Saturday, March 8. NASA TV is planning live coverage.
–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology
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