By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. - A European resupply line to the International Space Station closed on Tuesday with the arrival of a fifth and final freighter to the orbital outpost.
Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle 5, known as ATV-5, blasted off two weeks ago with more than seven tons of cargo for the station, a $100 billion orbiting laboratory staffed by rotating crews of Russian, U.S., European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts and cosmonauts.
The ATV’s journey ended slowly with the 32-foot tall (9.8-m), 13.5-ton (12,247-kg) freighter inching closer and closer to a docking port on the station’s Zvezda module while the two spacecraft raced around the planet at 17,100 miles per hour (27,600 km per hour.)
A small metal probe extending from the top of the ATV slipped into Zvezda’s capture cone at 9:30 a.m. EDT as the ships passed 260 miles (418 km) over southern Kazakhstan, a NASA Television broadcast showed.
NASA mission commentator Rob Navias called the docking a "bittersweet moment" for the European Space Agency, a core member of the 15-nation international partnership that built and operates the orbital outpost. Europe’s cargo runs to the station began in 2008.
With two U.S. companies now regularly flying freight to the station along with Russian and Japanese cargo ships, Europe will turn its attention toward building a power and propulsion module for NASA’s manned Orion spacecraft. The capsule, which is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp, is designed to carry four astronauts to destinations beyond the space station, including asteroids, the moon and Mars.
The fifth and last ATV, the largest of the cargo ships currently servicing the station, carries a record load of 7.2 tons (6,532 kg) of fuel, water, science gear, food and other supplies.
"It’s a big event for us," European astronaut Alexander Gerst, one of six men currently aboard the station, said during an in-flight interview last week.
The cargo includes a European-built electromagnetic levitator, which will be used to suspend and heat metal samples in weightlessness with the goal of improving industrial casting processes.
Once the crew unpacks the ship, it will be loaded with trash and equipment no longer needed on the station. In late January, ATV-5 will be detached from the station so it can fly into the atmosphere to be incinerated. Its final task will be to record and transmit images of its demise to help engineers plan for the eventual removal of the space station from orbit.
The United States intends to keep the station operational until at least 2024. Russia and the other partners’ commitments currently run through 2020.
(Editing by Susan Heavey)