It was night when in Europe when, from the spaceport of Kourou in French Guyana, the space freighter ATV-5 (Automated Transfer Vehicle 5) was launched. It was named Georges Lemaître after the Belgian astronomer who was the first to propose the Big Bang theory and it was launched on an Ariane 5ES rocket. With a total weight of 20,275 kg, it’s the heaviest cargo spacecraft ever launched by ESA to the International Space Station, surpassing the previous ATV-4, Albert Einstein, by about 80 kg.
The ATV freighters carry cargos of several different types, even in large quantities, in this case for a total of more than six and a half tons. The ATV-5 carries propellant, supplies such as oxygen, water and food and equipment that includes scientific experiments and various spare parts for the International Space Station. Part of the cargo is carried on behalf of NASA and the Japanese space agency.
The ATVs are the largest cargo spacecraft in use, much larger than the Russian Progress and the new American spacecraft Dragon and Cygnus. They’re built to transport electronic equipment and delicate scientific experiments so they’re pressurized. This has the advantage of allowing them to be used as an additional living module for the International Space Station during the period in which they are docked, which can last up to six months.
The ATV-5 will take about two weeks to reach the International Space Station. It’s a long time even by the standards of these space freighters but there’s no rush to arrive so they established the trajectory that allows minimal use of fuel and maximum safety.
The fuel still available will be used to boost the International Space Station, which is lowered every day several meters due to friction caused even by the thin atmosphere present at an altitude between 350 and 400 km. An ATV can boost the Station several kilometers in a single maneuver. A part of the fuel will be used to replenish the Russian tanks and allow the Station to maneuver independently.
The ATV-5 spacecraft uses an automatic rendezvous that will dock directly to the Zvezda module. It’s equipped with an experimental Liris (Laser InfraRed Imaging Sensors) system able to manage the docking to a non-cooperative system. This means that it can dock to objectives not equipped with sensors and instruments which allow the classic docking system to operate.
The ATV-5 is the last of the ATV space freighters but the international work done to create a spaceship so sophisticated in terms of hardware and software won’t get lost. For the future, ESA has decided to collaborate with NASA adapting the ATV projects to build a service module for the Orion spacecraft that will be used to carry both cargo and astronauts. In this way, the heir of the ATV will have the chance to travel even beyond Earth’s orbit.
When the time comes to leave the International Space Station, the last stages of life of the ATV-5, which will end with its destruction in its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, will be closely monitored. A special infrared camera called Break-Up Camera will shoot this phase from within the spacecraft along with other instruments. They will provide new information that will be useful in the future, also when the time comes to destroy the modules of the International Space Station. The era of the ATV space freighters will really end with a bang!