ESA's supply ship
The International Space Station (ISS) is like an island surrounded by an empty sea. Without a regular supply line from Earth, its crews would be like modern Robinson Crusoes – stranded far from home.
At present, astronauts cannot grow their own food in orbit. They rely on fresh supplies arriving every few months.
Until recently, all the food, water, air and spare parts that the crews need were brought by the U.S. Shuttle and Russian unmanned Progress ships. This changed in 2008, when a new supply ship – ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) – made its maiden flight. Named Jules Verne, after a famous French writer of science fiction, the ATV docked with the ISS on 3 April. When its mission was complete, it was sent into the atmosphere and burnt up on 29 September.
The 20 tonne ATV carries up to 8 tonnes of supplies, fuel, experiments and presents for the crew. During six months docked to the ISS, its engine can be fired to raise the station’s orbit. This keeps the ISS at a safe height of about 320 km, well above the Earth's atmosphere.
At the end of its useful life, the ATV becomes a waste disposal truck. Loaded with up to 6.3 tonnes of rubbish, it is commanded to burn up in the atmosphere.