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Cutaway view of the Automated Transfer Vehicle

The Automated Transfer Vehicle

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ESA / Education / Space In Bytes

The International Space Station is a floating laboratory 400 kilometres above our heads, where astronauts can live and work for months at a time.

It is full of equipment for performing science experiments. Like everyone else, the astronauts on board need to eat and drink. They need to breathe, too – but unlike everyone else, they cannot just open a window if they feel like having some fresh air!

The astronauts also need materials for their scientific experiments, and sometimes they need spare parts to fix worn-out or broken parts of the Space Station. All these supplies are going to be sent up from Earth in a cargo “space ship” called the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or 'ATV'.

What does ATV mean?

Automated: ATV has automatic systems, which makes it possible to dock (“rendez-vous”) with the Space Station without astronauts on board steering it.
Transfer: ATV conveys from the Earth to the ISS what the astronauts will need for their life in space.
Vehicle: ATV is the most powerful automatic space vehicle ever built!

Jules Verne [1828-1905]
Jules Verne [1828-1905]

Did you know..

The first ATV has been named Jules Verne after the French visionary 19th century science fiction writer.

ATV is capable of docking with remarkable precision!
ATV is capable of docking with remarkable precision!

The ISS needs rocket propellant too, for even 400 km above the Earth, there are still faint traces of air – less than a 1000th of what we need to breathe - but enough, over a period of months or years, to slow the Station down. Without the occasional re-boosts which ATV will provide it, the ISS would slow sufficiently to fall from its orbit back to Earth!

John Ellwood, ATV Project Manager
John Ellwood, ATV Project Manager

ATV will dock with the ISS thanks to the combination of a Star Tracker and GPS data. The Star Tracker is able to recognise different constellations in the sky and calculate the orientation of ATV in space. GPS gives ATV information about its position, like in your family car. They are the modern day equivalent of centuries old navigation techniques!

Inside the ATV
Inside the ATV

After 6 months, when the astronauts have unloaded the space “ship” (the supplies usually include gifts from their families), they fill it with the Station’s waste. Then it undocks and heads back towards the Earth. It burns up high above the Pacific Ocean in the Earth’s atmosphere.

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