The International Space Station (ISS) is far from self-sufficient. To shuttle food and equipment resupplies up to the station, the European Space Agency (ESA) relies on a fleet of disposable Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) like the recently launched Edoardo Amaldi.
The ISS needs restocking roughly every 17 months. It typically requires about 6.6 tons of goods per trip — food, oxygen, scientific equipment and care packages from Earth. The problem is that the ISS, 400km above the planet's surface, already has a full six-man crew. If you sent another person up there with the supplies, you'd need to send a shuttle to retrieve him, which requires its own crew, launch preparations, and the rest of the circus that comes with launching a shuttle. Doing so is simply cost-prohibitive. So, instead, the ESA has been building and launching single-use, unmanned cargo spacecraft to ferry the supplies.
The Edoardo Amaldi ATV-003 is the third in a series of six ATVs constructed for this purpose. It's named after the 20th-century Italian physicist Edoardo Amaldi, a man regarded as one of the fathers of European spaceflight. The first two spacecraft were named after writer Jules Verne (launched in 2008) and astronomer Johannes Kepler (launched in 2012). The two remaining spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2013 and 2014, will be named after Albert Einstein and Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître.
The Edoardo Amaldi currently holds the record for largest single operational spacecraft, with a total mass of more than 20 tons. The craft itself weighs 13 tons and is porting 7.2 tons of propellant, water and supplies.
It launched on March 23, 2012, from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5ES rocket. After a five-and-a-half day trip, it reached the ISS on March 28 and was welcomed by Flight Engineers Andre Kuipers and Oleg Kononenko. The Edoardo Amaldi will remain docked until late August, until, like a 13-ton scab, it will flake off from the ISS and burn up upon atmospheric reentry. The ATV's demise is not a waste — the vessel will test technology that will eventually be adapted for use in the Advanced Reentry Vehicle.
"By naming ATV-3 after Edoardo Amaldi, we celebrate a great Italian but also a committed European [leader] who understood the importance of pooling resources and minds together to achieve important results," said Simonetta Di Pippo of the ESA in a statement. "We are paying tribute to a visionary mind, to a great scientist but also to an idea of cooperation that is embodied in the International Space Station partnership." [Space, Wikipedia, NASA 1 - 2, CollectSpace]
Image: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG - J.M. Guillon
The ATV-3's slow dance with the ISS
The ATV-3 successfully docked with the ISS
Image: ESA TV
A Cutaway diagram of the ATV-3's interior
Image: ESA TV