A new unmanned cargo ship flew up to the International Space Station and docked Thursday, successfully delivering food, water, and clothes in its orbital debut.
After completing its mission, the non-reusable spacecraft will burn up on reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
The European cargo ship, called Jules Verne, was operated by flight controllers at a European Space Agency center in Toulouse, France.
NASA's Mission Control in Houston and Russia's control center outside Moscow kept close tabs on the operation, which culminated in the morning linkup more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) above the Atlantic Ocean. So did the three space station residents.
Twice over the past week, flight controllers in Toulouse guided Jules Verne to close encounters with the space station.
The practice gave them confidence that the spacecraft's systems would perform as planned for the docking. Indeed, everything seemed to go smoothly with the automatic linkup.
"Around the world in 26 days, the European Space Agency's Jules Verne has pulled into port at the International Space Station," announced Mission Control commentator Rob Navias in Houston.
South American Launch
Jules Verne rocketed away from French Guiana—an "overseas department" of France in South America—on March 9. The ship's cargo included several tons of oxygen, fuel, water, and other supplies. Jules Verne had to wait for NASA's Endeavour space shuttle to leave the orbiting complex. Endeavour's mission ended last week.
Jules Verne, the ship, is named after the French science-fiction writer who wrote about extraordinary voyages under the sea, through the air, and into space. His works included Around the World in 80 Days and From the Earth to the Moon.
The spacecraft won't be opened, and its contents unloaded, until Friday.
Space Shuttles' Final Days
European space officials expect to launch a supply ship every two years.
The ships are not reusable. Once unloaded and detached from the space station, they will be directed to fiery re-entries over the Pacific. That's also what happens to the smaller Russian supply craft that regularly drop by.
The space station will need to rely on these unmanned spacecraft for supplies, tools, and science experiments once NASA's space shuttles stop flying in 2010. (See "Huge Job Losses After Shuttle Program Ends, NASA Hints" [April 2, 2008].)
Besides Europe and Russia, Japan will also provide supply ships, beginning next year.
Europe's Columbus lab (picture of the lab) arrived at the space station in February, and the first section of Japan's Kibo lab came on board in March.
Next week, meanwhile, the Russians will launch a new space station crew aboard a Soyuz rocket. Coming home after a six-month mission will be U.S. commander Peggy Whitson and her Russian colleague, Yuri Malenchenko.