July 29, 2014
— Europe's line of space freighters is going out with a (big) bang.
Christened the "Georges Lemaître" after the Belgian priest and astronomer who proposed what became the Big Bang theory of the universe's origin, the final European Space Agency (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) lifted off Tuesday (July 29) and immediately became the heaviest vehicle launched by Europe's venerable Ariane 5 rocket.
The 13-ton spacecraft, now on its way to the International Space Station, rose from the ELA-3 pad at the European-run spaceport in Korou, French Guiana at 7:47 p.m. EDT (2347 GMT; 8:47 p.m. local time). The Georges Lemaître will deliver more than seven tons of science experiments, food, supplies and fuel to the space station when it arrives on Aug. 12.
There, German astronaut Alexander Gerst will become the last European to open the hatch to a European spacecraft docked to the orbiting outpost. The ATV is being retired in favor of ESA applying its past two decades of design and flight experience to develop a service module for NASA's next-generation crewed space capsule, the Orion.
ESA's fifth Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Georges Lemaître, is seen prior to its encapsulation for launch. (ESA/M. Pedoussaut)
"In a way it is sad to see that this is already the last one," Gerst said in a preflight interview."But, on the other hand, the technologies that we used for ATV are being used for future vehicles."
The 34-foot-long (10.3 meter) ATV, with its four "X-wing"-arranged solar panels will perform an automated approach to the station's Russian Zvezda service module, where it will remain attached for the next six months.
Europe's last load(stone)
Inside the Georges Lemaître, Gerst and his space station crew mates will find more drinking water than any of the prior four ATVs have supplied, food needed to restock the station's pantry and a number of European, Japanese, and U.S. science experiments.
They will also find a small rock that is no stranger to being in space.
Artist Katie Paterson's reconstituted and coated Campo del Cielo meteorite as prepared for flight on the Georges Lemaître. (ESA)
In addition to ESA's Electromagnetic Levitator, a device to study heated metals suspended in microgravity, and the Haptics-1 'touchy-feely' joystick to investigate how people feel tactile feedback in space, the cargo freighter also has packed aboard a reconstituted and coated meteorite.
The brainchild of artist Katie Paterson, the iron meteorite naturally fell to Earth 4,000 years ago, crashing into what is now Argentina. In a very literal case of art imitating life, Paterson cast the Campo del Cielo stone and then melted down the rock. Pouring the molten meteorite back into its own cast, Paterson molded the metal back into its original shape.
The meteorite, which ESA then coated to be safely carried aboard the station, is now onboard the Georges Lemaître, returning to space as "non-functional cargo" and, as ESA itself described, is the "oddest item" packed on the ATV.
The Georges Lemaître is also flying a commemorative set of patches, lapel pins and DVDs paying tribute to the fleet of five ATVs and their namesakes.
European Space Agency logo for ATV-5 Georges Lemaître. (ESA)
The first Automated Transfer Vehicle, launched in March 2008, was named for French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne. Nearly three years later, the Johannes Kepler lifted off in honor of the German astronomer.
ATV-3, which flew to the station in 2012, was christened for Edoardo Amaldi, the "father of Italian space research" and one of the few scientists who advocated for what later became the European Space Agency.
Launched in June 2013, the fourth ATV was named for the genius Albert Einstein, who is perhaps best known for his theories concerning relativity.
The Georges Lemaître, ATV-5, caps the fleet by honoring a man who advanced our understanding of the beginning of the universe, devising the basis for the Big Bang theory as it is known today.