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Jason DavisJune 6, 2013

ESA launches fourth cargo spacecraft to ISS

The European Space Agency launched its fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle, Albert Einstein, into orbit yesterday atop an Ariane 5 rocket. ATVs are Europe’s resupply vehicles for the International Space Station. The Albert Einstein, or simply, ATV-4, is the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane 5, tipping the scales at a whopping 20,190 kilograms—narrowly beating out the weight of ATV-3 by about 150 kilograms. Bundled up inside ATV-4 is 2,480 kilograms of dry cargo, along with 2,580 kilograms of fuel for boosting the station’s orbit, 570 kilograms of water and 100 kilograms of air and oxygen.

Liftoff of Ariane 5 VA213 with ATV-4

ESA / S. Corvaja

Liftoff of Ariane 5 VA213 with ATV-4
Ariane 5 VA213 soars into the French Guiana night carrying the European Space Agency's fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle, Albert Einstein. Liftoff occurred on Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 21:52 UTC (5:52 p.m. EDT).

Here’s a video of the launch. If you speak French, you’ll be able to follow the countdown of trois-deux-un-zéro. Or, if you’re like me, you can just look up how to speak zero through ten in French. The launch site is in Kourou, French Guiana—a South American country north of Brazil on the Atlantic Coast. Ariane rockets and launch operations are handled primarily by French companies. 


Notice how the Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2 core engine doesn’t roar to life until after the clock hits zero. Liftoff occurs when the two solid rocket boosters comprising the EAP (Etage d’Accélération à Poudre) stage ignite. When Ariane finally leaves the pad, it leaves in a hurry—did you notice how fast it cleared the tower? Sacrebleu!

Ariane 5 in French Guiana twilight

ESA / S. Corvaja

Ariane 5 in French Guiana twilight
Exhaust from Ariane 5 VA213's twin solid rocket boosters is backlit by the waning French Guiana twilight on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The rocket carried the European Space Agency's ATV Albert Einstein into orbit for an eventual docking with the International Space Station.

The Albert Einstein won’t dock at Station until June 15. There’s something in its parking spot at the moment: a Progress resupply vehicle. Progress M-19M is scheduled to undock on June 11. It created a little drama when it arrived on April 26 with one of its antennas stuck in the wrong position. There was concern that the antenna might whack a critical Station component; particularly, a set of laser reflectors that ATVs use to dock. Progress will snap photographs as it leaves so ground controllers can check for damage.

Unlike JAXA’s HTV, SpaceX’s Dragon or Antares’ Cygnus resupply spacecraft, which sidle up to the station to be snagged with Canadarm, ATV and Progress vehicles dock at the Russian Zvezda segment. ATVs establish a direct GPS link as they approach, and then use a videometer for docking. As they creep up to the docking port at seven centimeters per second, ATVs bounce laser pulses off of the aforementioned reflectors to refine their aim.  Those measurements are supplemented by readings from a telegoniometer, which works like radar. As a result, ATVs dock with incredible precision, within 1.5 centimeters of their target.

ATV encapsulated in Ariane 5

ESA / D. Ducros

ATV encapsulated in Ariane 5
An artist's rendering of the ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle encapsulated in the nose of an Ariane 5 rocket.

Read more: International Space Station

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Jason Davis

Editorial Director for The Planetary Society
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