Europe's ATV Johannes Kepler supply ship on its way to Space Station

Yesterday evening, ESA's second Automated Transfer Vehicle has been launched into its targeted low orbit by an Ariane 5.

The Ariane 5 lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 21:50 GMT (18:50 local). The launcher and its 20.06-tonne payload flew over the Atlantic towards the Azores and Europe. An initial 8-minute burn of the upper stage injected it, with Johannes Kepler, into a low orbit inclined at 51.6 degrees to the equator.

After a 42-minute coast, the upper stage reignited for 30 seconds to circularise the orbit at an altitude of 260 km. About 64 minutes into flight, the unmanned supply ship separated safely from the spent upper stage.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) deployed its four solar wings soon after and will proceed with early orbit operations over the coming hours to begin its climb to the International Space Station (ISS).

 "ATV Johannes Kepler is inaugurating our regular service line to the ISS," sayd Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight.

For the first time, ESA used a special access device to load last-minute cargo items. "This late access confirms ATV's role as a critical resupply vehicle for the Space Station," she said. 

"Right now, integration for the next vehicle in line, Edoardo Amaldi, will be finished in Europe in August 2011, and production is under way for ATV-4 and -5." Mrs Di Pippo confirmed that "Edoardo Amaldi is planned for launch in about 12 months. The other two will follow by 2014."

During the coming week, ATV will adjust its orbit to rendezvous with the ISS for docking on Thursday, 24 February.

Unlike its 2008 predecessor, ATV Jules Verne, ATV Johannes Kepler will not perform practice demonstration manoeuvres. Instead, it will dock directly and autonomously with Russia's Zvezda module to deliver cargo, propellant and oxygen to the orbital outpost.

This launch also marks the 200th flight of an Ariane vehicle since the debut of 24 December 1979. The total includes 116 flights of Ariane 4 from 1988 to 2003 and 56 flights of Ariane 5 from 1996.

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