With eight months still remaining before a mighty Ariane 5 booster launches it toward the International Space Station, Europe’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5)—named in honor of the late Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître—departed prime contractor Astrium’s facility in Bremen, Germany, on 7 October, bound for the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. “Like its predecessors,” noted Astrium in a news release, “ATV-5 ‘Georges Lemaître’ is being transported by ship in three special containers … At the same time, around 80 sea containers full of test equipment are joining it on its journey.” Upon arrival at the South American launch site, currently scheduled for 22 October, ATV-5 will begin extensive testing, ahead of integration with the Ariane 5 vehicle. Liftoff is presently scheduled for 5 June 2014.
At Kourou, the ATV’s various components will be mated to produce the complete cargo ship for the ISS. Measuring 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide, it includes an Integrated Cargo Carrier for its pressurized payloads, together with an avionics module for its computers, gyroscopes, navigation and control subsystems, electrical power and communications hardware, and a propulsion module for rendezvous and periodic “re-boosts” of the space station’s orbit. Weighing 41,400 pounds (18,780 kg), it has the ability to transport 16,000 pounds (7,250 kg) of payloads and supplies into orbit, including up to 12,100 pounds (5,500 kg) of dry cargo, up to 1,850 pounds (840 kg) of water, up to 220 pounds (100 kg) of gas, and up to 10,400 pounds (4,700 kg) of propellants for orbital re-boosts and refueling of the ISS.
Whilst the ATV is incapable of returning items back to Earth—and instead burns up in the atmosphere at the end of each mission—it can remain docked at the ISS for up to six months, far longer than other visiting vehicles, such as Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), SpaceX’s Dragon, or Orbital’s Cygnus. Unlike those vehicles, the ATV is not designed to berth at the U.S. segment of the ISS, but to dock automatically at the Russian “end.” Consequently, it is equipped with a Russian-compatible Progress-type docking mechanism.
To date, four ATVs have flown, all named in honor of key European-born scientific figures: Jules Verne in 2008, Johannes Kepler in 2011, Edoardo Amaldi in 2012, and the ongoing ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” mission, launched on 5 June 2013. Last year, ESA announced that it was shutting down its ATV production lines after ATV-5, highlighting “a significant obsolescence problem” at equipment and component levels, which effectively limited the desire or ability to reopen the lines. Costing about $600 million per unit to build, the ATV operated as part of a “barter” arrangement between ESA and its ISS Partners, covering its operating costs at the space station until 2017. A further $600 million investment was required to cover the 2017-2020 timeframe, and Germany apparently favored European participation in the Service Module for NASA’s Orion Program.
Initial reports of European interest in retasking the ATV to a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) mission arose almost two years ago, when NASASpaceflight.com cited sources which described ESA as “serious” about the possibility. Then, in June 2012, Astrium received a pair of contracts—each valued at 6.5 million euros ($8.6 million)—to undertake studies of an ATV-based Orion Service Module and an entirely separate multi-purpose orbital spacecraft. Finally, last November, it was reported that ESA was prepared to provide the key component as “payment-in-kind” for its continued involvement with the ISS through the end of this decade. Earlier this year, it was announced that ESA would indeed build the Service Module for Orion’s first Exploration Mission (EM-1), currently scheduled to launch atop the first Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster in December 2017.
This confidence in the ATV highlights the maturity of its technology. “The ATV is Europe’s modern and reliable space transporter, equipped with unique systems for automated and autonomous rendezvous and docking,” said Bart Reijnen, Head of Orbital Systems and Space Exploration at Astrium, speaking at the departure of ATV-5. “The technology, as well as the experience that Astrium has gained in the course of the development and production of the ATV, form an outstanding basis for the future, as our next challenge is to develop the European Service Module on behalf of ESA for the U.S. Orion capsule,” continued Alain Charmeau, CEO of Astrium. “The spacecraft, with its crew of four or more astronauts, will be powered and supplied by an MPCV-ESM service module developed from the ATV. The decision by NASA to entrust a European manufacturer with such a vital element in the Orion program clearly shows their confidence in the transatlantic partnership and in the capabilities of their European partners.”
Named in honor of Lemaître in February 2012, in order to continue “the tradition of drawing on great European visionaries to reflect Europe’s deep roots in science, technology and culture,” ATV-5 was assembled at Astrium’s Bremen facility and on 30 August 2013 underwent a major systems validation test. Nicknamed “The Big Test,” the spacecraft was connected to the flight control system and actual on-orbit communications assets—including NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and ESA’s Artemis—which it will use during its mission. With this work successfully concluded, Astrium readied the ATV-5 hardware for shipment to French Guiana, its final Earthly destination before space.
According to NASASpaceflight.com, the mission is scheduled to begin on 5 June 2014, with a launch from Kourou’s ELA-3 (Ensemble de Lancement Ariane) complex. ATV-5 will then commence a nine-day rendezvous profile, ahead of docking with the aft port of Russia’s Zvezda module on 14 June. Its payloads and supplies will then be unloaded by the incumbent Expedition 40 crew—Commander Steve Swanson and Flight Engineers Aleksandr Skvortsov, Oleg Artemyev, Maksim Surayev, Reid Wiseman, and Germany’s Alexander Gerst—and the spacecraft is expected to support at least one re-boost of the ISS altitude. Slated for a long-duration residency, ATV-5 is not expected to depart the space station until 2 December 2014, whereupon it will be destroyed in the upper atmosphere.
The man for whom ATV-5 is named established a name for himself in the early 20th century, both as a priest and as an astronomer. Born in Charleroi, Belgium, on 17 July 1894, Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître is today famous for first proposing the theory of the expansion of the universe and for deriving what is today known as “Hubble’s Law.” Lemaître’s research was published in 1927, two years ahead of the work of U.S. astronomer Edwin Hubble. After a classical education at a Jesuit school, Lemaître entered the Université Catholique de Louvain to study civil engineering, but his work was stalled by the Great War. After serving Belgium as an army artillery officer, he returned to his studies, focusing on physics and mathematics and preparing for the priesthood.
Upon receipt of his doctorate in 1920 and ordination as a priest in 1923, Lemaître entered the University of Cambridge, England, as a graduate student in astronomy, and later worked at Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. Returning to Belgium in 1925, he became a part-time lecturer at the Université Catholique de Louvain and it was whilst there that he began work on the report which would earn him worldwide renown. In 1927, in the Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels, Lemaître wrote of “A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius, accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae.” Little read outside of his native Belgium, it was not until 1931 that the work was translated into English.
The famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is said to have regarded Lemaître’s ideas of an expanding universe with a measure of scorn, at first, to which the Belgian responded: “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious!” Invited to speak at a meeting of the British Association in London, Lemaître explained his conviction that the universe expanded from an initial point—which he labeled “The Primeval Atom”—and his work was subsequently published in the journal Nature. He referred to it as a “Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of creation,” but in years to come it would become the cornerstone of what is today dubbed “The Big Bang.”
In recognition of his work, Lemaître received the Francqui Prize—Belgium’s highest scientific award—from King Léopold III. It was an award for which he had been nominated by Einstein and also by his mentor, the English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. In 1936, he was elected a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which he subsequently became president. Opposed to the mixture of science and religion, Lemaître disagreed with Pope Pius XII’s proclamation that his work validated the notion of Creationism. Both Lemaître and the pope’s scientific advisor, Daniel O’Connell, successfully persuaded Pius XII not to publicly mention Creationism again in a public setting. As head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he continued his teaching workload, albeit in a reduced capacity, until shortly before his death. Lemaître died in Leuven, Belgium, on 20 June 1966, aged 71.
At the present time, ATV-4—which delivered the largest amount of dry cargo ever carried aboard a European spacecraft—remains docked at the aft port of Russia’s Zvezda module and is expected to leave the space station on 28 October 2013 and burn up in the atmosphere on 2 November.