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Ariane 5 paints the sky with launch to space station

Posted: June 5, 2013

KOUROU, French Guiana -- Suspended atop a fiery-hot flow of rocket exhaust, an Ariane 5 launcher lifted off from French Guiana on Wednesday with a bus-sized European-built cargo carrier to deliver fresh food, rocket fuel and experiments to the International Space Station.

See photos of the rocket's colorful launch. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The 173-foot-tall rocket lit its hydrogen-fueled Vulcain 2 engine, sat on the launch pad for seven seconds as computers furiously checked the launcher's health, then lit two solid rocket boosters to propel the 856-ton Ariane 5 into a sky painted with orange just after sunset at the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Liftoff occurred at precisely 2152:18 GMT (5:52:18 p.m. EDT; 6:52:18 p.m. local time), the instant Earth's rotation placed the Ariane 5's ELA-3 launch pad in the path of the International Space Station's orbit.

The launcher quickly rocketed into the sky, where the Ariane 5 clawed through wispy clouds before disappearing from view about 5 minutes later, leaving a twisting cloud of exhaust contorted by high-altitude winds and illuminated by the day's last rays of sunlight.

Sixty-four minutes later, after arriving in a near-circular 161-mile-high orbit, the Ariane 5's upper stage deployed the fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle, a massive spacecraft financed by the European Space Agency and built by an industrial consortium led by Astrium Space Transportation.

"It's the end of the Ariane mission tonight, but the ATV mission has only started," said Bart Reijnen, Astrium's vice president of orbital systems and space exploration.

The 44,610-pound spacecraft is beginning a 10-day journey to the space station, where it will dock to the lab's aft port at approximately 1346 GMT (9:46 a.m. EDT) June 15.

"Ariane 5 keeps breaking records of reliability, but also of availability, since tonight, again after a terrific countdown, the launcher left right on time," said Stephane Israel, Arianespace's chairman and CEO. "But it's also performance, because with Albert Einstein, a payload of 20.2 metric tons was lofted into space, which was the heaviest load ever launched by Europe."

The unmanned freighter deployed its solar panels and a communications antenna boom about a half-hour after separation from the Ariane 5 upper stage Wednesday night. Over the next 10 days, the ATV will coast through space before beginning a series of engine burns to fine-tune its flight toward the space station.

The cargo craft - named for renowned physicist Albert Einstein - is stocked with goods for science, repairs and the comfort of the space station's six-person crew. Items include a European fluids experiment, a water pump for ESA's Columbus module, a critical component for the outpost's water recycling system, and containers of tiramisu and t-shirts, peanut butter and parmesan, and lasagna.

The Italian food will arrive as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano begins his third week about the complex after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 28 with Russian and American crewmates.

"We are very much looking forward to the arrival of ATV 4 - Albert Einstein - one of the highlights of my increment. We are very much looking forward to it because it carries lots of experiments, our personal stuff and lots of food," Parmitano said in a message from the space station. "We would like to congratulate the grounds teams, all of them, for a successful launch."

The ATV also carries fuel to pump into tanks on the Zvezda service module, and its load of propellant will also be used to reboost the space station and steer the complex clear of space debris during the craft's docked stay, which extends until at least October.

Water and gas tanks aboard Albert Einstein contain 1,245 pounds of potable water and 220 pounds of air and pure oxygen.

Read our preview story for more details on ATV 4's cargo load.

Europe delivers the supplies and fuel under a barter agreement with NASA to pay for the ESA's share of the space station's operating costs.

"For us, kilos on ATV are money," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director-general. "We have to pay our share of the common oeprating costs. This is what you do when you own an apartment. You have to pay your share, and we are paying in kilos. The more kilos we are sending to ISS the better because it reduces the bill we have to pay to our partners. This is why using the full capacity of ATV is very important to us. "Every kilo must be useful, but we have succeeded with our parnters to use the full capacity of ATV," Dordain said.

File photo of a previous ATV in orbit, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
The ATV's arrival at the space station is set for June 15, but engineers are concerned a laser reflector mounted aboard the outpost was damaged during the docking of a Russian Progress cargo craft in late April.

The Progress supply freighter failed to deploy one of its rendezvous antennas after launch, but Russian officials elected to continue the mission's approach fo the space station's aft docking port on the Zvezda service module, the same location designed for the ATV, which uses a Russian docking system.

Astronauts mounted an array of laser optical reflectors around the Zvezda docking port for the ATV's laser navigation sensors to use during the rendezvous. During the last 250 meters, or 820 feet, of the approach, the European cargo ship fires laser pulses at the reflectors, which bounce the signal back to receivers on the ATV to tell the spacecraft the location and range to the space station.

But the lodged antenna on the Progress docking in late April may have struck one of the reflectors.

Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, said he doesn't think the antenna damaged the reflector - called an MRR. He described the hat-shaped antenna, which has rim of thin aluminum, as "very flimsy."

"We expect that [the antenna] did contact the outer mold line of the docking ring and is probably resting on this MRR - this retroreflector that the ATV needs to use," Suffredini said in a May 22 press conference. "But the loads are such that we don't expect that we damaged the retroreflector."

The Progress supply craft is scheduled to leave the station June 11, and engineers will scrutinize video from the ship's on-board camera to examine the reflector for damage.

"In the act of rubbing up along the side of the docking ring, [the antenna] might have put some contamination on the retroreflector and damaged the reflector so it won't reflect the right energy" to the ATV's laser navigation sensors.

If engineers find damage, there is a spare reflector aboard the space station that could be installed on a spacewalk before the ATV arrives.