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Latest update : 2008-03-08

The European Space Agency is launching an unmanned cargo ship into space which will replenish stores for the astronauts on the International Space Station. (Report: K.Williams)

The first European space freighter was ready for lift-off on its maiden voyage to carry supplies to the International Space Station, officials said Saturday.
The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a nearly 20-tonne payload the size of a double-decker bus, was to be launched at 0359 GMT Sunday aboard a beefed-up Ariane 5 launcher.
"There are only the final checks to be made," the Arianespace official responsible for the ATV, Jean-Michel Desobeau, told a press conference.
The launch, originally scheduled for early Saturday, had to be delayed a day for new checks on the system to separate the freighter from its carrier rocket after launch.
If all goes well, the unmanned cylindrical craft will deliver seven and a half tonnes of food, water, pressurised air, fuel and personal items to the ISS crew.
After docking, the ATV will also use its engines to propel the station, which is being gently tugged earthwards by terrestrial gravity, to a safer height in low orbit.
After six months or so, the craft will detach from the ISS, taking with it rubbish accumulated during the station's mission. The trash and freighter will then safely disintegrate over the Pacific, mission scientists say.
Weighing 11 tonnes unloaded, measuring 10.3 metres (33.5 feet) long and 4.5 metres (16.25 feet) wide and laden with hi-tech optical navigation, docking sensors and communications equipment, the ATV has cost ESA 1.3 billion euros (1.96 billion dollars).
The payload, handled by an Ariane 5 ES, is the biggest ever undertaken by ESA.
The first ATV is named after Jules Verne, the French author who pioneered  science fiction. Four more cargo ships are in the works, with their assembly and launch each costing just over 300 million euros (450 million dollars).
Hitherto the space station has relied on deliveries from the US space shuttle and the veteran Russian Progress freighters.

Date created : 2008-03-08