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Third European supply podule blasts off en route to space station

Robot freighters now coming off assembly line annually

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The third European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) robot supply craft to the International Space Station blasted off successfully from Kourou spaceport in French Guiana at 04:34 GMT this morning.

Watch live streaming video from eurospaceagency at livestream.com

The ATV, named Edoardo Amaldi after the famous Italian physicist, lifted off atop an Ariane V heavy lift rocket stack. The 20-tonne payload was the heaviest ever lifted by an Ariane.

Amaldi separated from the Ariane upper stage at 05:38 and has now deployed its solar panels. It is now manoeuvring towards rendezvous and orbit match with the ISS, and is expected to arrive at 22:34 GMT on 28 March.

European Space Agency chiefs were especially chuffed that they had managed to get Amaldi off the ground on schedule a year(ish) after the previous ATV Johannes Kepler. The ATVs were supposed to provide an annual service from the outset, but in fact Kepler arrived almost three years after the inaugural Jules Verne ATV-1.

“Europe providing an annual service to the Station becomes a reality due to the dedication, competence and interaction of our space industry, national agencies and ESA,” said ESA head honcho Jean-Jacques Dordain.

Actually Amaldi is set to arrive slightly over 13 months after Kepler, but hey, it's a big improvement and the ESA seems confident that the next two ATVs will at least arrive during the planned calendar years. And Europe has some reason to crow here, as the USA - following the retirement of the Space Shuttles - currently has no way of getting stuff up to the station at all.

However Europe can't at the moment get astronauts to and from the station, the ATVs being unmanned only. The only way to change crews on the orbiting outpost is the use of Russian Soyuz ships (Russia also sends up supplies and fuel on robot Progress craft).

The US has plans to come back to manned space, however, with upstart startup rocket firm SpaceX planning its first supply run to the ISS using its new Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule on April 30. SpaceX also aims to have a manned version of the Dragon flying crews up and down in the near future.

SpaceX will do these tasks using fairly minor amounts of NASA funding: the once-mighty US space agency intends to reserve most of its cash for its planned Space Launch System mega-rocket and Orion deep-space capsule, intended to carry astronauts to some place beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s moon missions. However there are grave doubts as to the realism of these NASA plans, which seem likely to be cripplingly expensive.

For now the ISS is the only place for astronauts and cosmonauts to go, so all parties will be glad to see the ATV programme on track. Amaldi is to stay docked at the station for five months, during which time it will serve as a manoeuvring thruster. ®

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