Image of the Month: the view from the top!

Europe’s ATV spacecraft has a vital role in maintaining and supplying the International Space Station, recently astronaut Paolo Nespoli and his crewmates had a unique view of this high-tech cargo vehicle.

Image of ATV launch

One spacecraft seen from another (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

Another shot of the Earth from space, you may think, but look a little closer. See that little hair-thin streak, that’s an approaching spacecraft! ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli took this image on 16 February 2011 from his current residence, the International Space Station. It shows the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Johannes Kepler soaring into orbit in the nose of an Ariane 5 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

Currently, the ISS is supported by five spacecraft: the Space Shuttle and Soyuz (which carry people too), the Russian Progress, Japanese HTV and ESA’s ATV. Each ATV carries seven tonnes or so to the ISS. On this flight Kepler is loaded with 2.5 tonnes of food, clothing, oxygen and fresh propellants for the station itself. The remainder of its payload is propellant for its own engines. ATVs perform the vital task of reboosting the ISS into a high orbit (residual atmospheric drag, yes, even at that altitude, is steadily decaying the station’s orbit).

This is a very busy time for the ISS, Astronotes reader Mike MacKay says  “I saw the ISS with the Japanese cargo ship attached at one end, that docked in January; the Progress cargo ship that also docked a few weeks ago at the other end – on the Russian segment; and the ATV-V at the very end of the Russian segment ready to boost the ISS to a higher orbit … the Space Shuttle launch for the ISS …is carrying the European-built Leonardo module that will also be left attached to the ISS. I can’t remember a time of so many dockings and high activity in such a short period.” Mike, who hails from Belfast, really knows this stuff, being a leading light in the European Space Agency.

After taking this image, Nespoli said, “Congratulations to Arianespace and ESA on ATV’s launch. Expedition 26 is looking forward to welcoming ATV on the ISS!” You can follow his real-life  adventures in space on his twitter feed and follow the ATV blog too. The ISS really is a piece of science fiction come to life.

(Thanks to Mike MacKay for bringing this image to my attention.)