April 4, 2008 // 3:46 am
- Europe's sophisticated new space truck, the ATV, has docked with the International Space Station (ISS).
The unmanned vessel carries just under five tonnes of food, water, air, fuel and equipment for the orbiting platform's three astronauts.
The Automated Transfer Vehicle used its own computerised systems to make the attachment at 1445 GMT.
Ground control and the ISS crew were on alert just in case there was a problem - but it was a textbook docking.
The European Space Agency's (Esa) station programme manager, Alan Thirkettle, said it was a great engineering achievement.
He told BBC News: "This is a first in the world - this is a fully automatic spacecraft that docked with the space station, totally under its own control, and that's never been done before by anybody at all; so from a purely technical point of view, it's really quite incredible."
Nicolas Chamussy, for lead manufacturer EADS Astrium, said the three weeks since launch leading up to docking, had been a remarkable period for the industrial teams.
"As a satellite manufacturer you never normally get to see your bird in flight - and we have; that's really amazing. It has flown 20 million km since launch and to see it there in space is quite an emotion."
Moving at just a few centimetres per second, the 20-tonne freighter moved towards the Russian Zvezda module, on the rear of the platform, and pulled itself onto the connection mechanism.
A good seal will have to be confirmed, and electrical and piping contacts secured, before space station commander Peggy Whitson and her crew can open up the ATV.
Their first job will be to turn on a "scrubber" to make sure the air mixture inside the vehicle's pressurised vessel contains no leaked hazardous vapours, and that no metal objects have come loose in transit that might cause injury.
It is expected to be Friday before the astronauts begin to use the stores on the ship - which has been dubbed "Jules Verne" for this mission.
One of the truck's main tasks will be to raise the altitude of the station, which is currently at about 340km. The ISS has a tendency to fall back to Earth over time as it drags through the top of the atmosphere.
Every few weeks the freighter will fire its thrusters to accelerate the platform complex, taking it higher into the sky.
As the astronauts deplete the ship's supplies, they will fill the empty storage racks with rubbish. In a few months' time, probably in August, Jules Verne will detach from the ISS and take itself and the waste into a controlled burn-up over the Pacific Ocean.
Four more trucks are booked to fly to the station between now and 2015. The logistics vehicles represent the subscription Europe must pay for its membership of the ISS project.
But Jules Verne's significance goes well beyond mere cargo duties.
The automated systems that allow it to track down an object (the ISS) moving at 27,000km/h, and attach itself with an accuracy of 2cm, are beyond what other space-faring nations have at the moment - including the Russians and the US.
"The ATV is a major step forward in terms of competence and capability for European Industry, and for the European space programme," said Mr Thirkettle.
"We have demonstrated we can do things that we've never been able to do before and that's going to help a lot for the exploration future."
The space truck's technologies are expected to find applications in many more missions that require automatic rendezvous and docking.
These would include ventures that take humans back to the Moon or on to Mars.
Any attempt to retrieve rocks from the Red Planet for study in Earth labs would also need the sorts of sensors the ATV employs to join spacecraft together without manual assistance.
At Esa HQ in Paris, however, space officials have even grander plans.
They believe Jules Verne's technologies could eventually be incorporated into an independent European manned spaceship - perhaps one that looked similar to the Orion concept now being built by the Americans to replace the shuttle.
Currently, European astronauts are totally dependent on the US or Russia to get into space.
Europe has demonstrated very capable launcher technology with its Ariane rockets; it has shown with the ATV it can build human-rated spacecraft that are highly navigable.
With further technological development - on re-entry systems, in particular - it would then have the complete package of engineering solutions needed to take people into space and bring them back safely.
Europe's space ministers will be asked to consider such ideas at their meeting in November.