The European Space Agency is launching the first Automated Transfer Vehicle tomorrow in French Guyana. Though it looks like a satellite, the ATV, christened Jules Verne, is really an unmanned cargo-hauling robot capable of carting 7.6 tons of supplies and other astro-crap up from earth, and even tow the International Space Station itself to a higher orbit. And it'll do a lot of this stuff with no guidance from the carbon units:
The most notable is the ATV's automatic rendezvous and docking technology - the ship can find its own way to the station and attach itself without any human intervention.
Other vehicles are manually driven in—optical sensors on the ATV steer and line up the truck for docking, as you can see in the images below (taken from the amazing BBC News video you can jump to below). Yes, the ESA refers to this automated linkup of ATV and ISS as "mating." Note to self: Space stations are not safe hideouts during robot revolts.
Tomorrow's launch will be carried off by an Ariane 5 rocket, and the double-decker-bus-sized ATV will be the heaviest payload ever carried by one. The maneuver will be trickier than usual, with the upper stage of the rocket igniting twice, to get it up there and then again to boost it safely over the Pacific Ocean. [BBC News]