ATV docks with the ISS

By Phil Plait | April 7, 2012 7:00 am

The European Space Agency periodically sends an Automated Transfer Vehicle to the International Space Station to reload the astronauts with supplies. On March 28, ATV-3, named Edoardo Amaldi, docked with the ISS. Astronauts on the station took this unbelievable picture of it as it approached:

[Click to massively embiggen. And you really, really want to.]

Wow. You can see the thrusters on the ATV burning to control its approach, like it’s right out of Star Trek! The stars, the green and brown aerosol layer over the Earth’s limb, the city lights slightly blurred from the ISS velocity of 8 km/sec – it gives such an eerie and unearthly feel to the picture!

As, I suppose, it should.

The ATV is amazing: this uncrewed machine can dock with the ISS using just GPS and star trackers — telescopes that can determine position and orientation by watching the stars… like ancient mariners did. [Update/correction: The ATV doesn’t dock with ISS using just GPS and star trackers; it makes its approach using those. Once it’s close enough, a more sophisticated laser guidance system is used.] This mission carried oxygen, water, hardware, spare parts, food, and even clothing for the astronauts.

While it’s docked, it may also be used as a booster, gently pushing the station into a new orbit to avoid space junk, or to boost the orbit higher. Although there’s almost no air up there, there’s some. Over time, as the ISS plows through these rarefied molecules, it loses orbital energy and drops into a lower orbit. Periodic reboosts are necessary, and the ATV can be used for the job.

The ATV can stay docked for up to six months or so. After that, it undocks, de-orbits, and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, making a spectacular fireball. A blaze of glory, you might say, for a machine that helps keep humans in space.

Image Credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Comments (35)

  1. Gary Ansorge

    I have no idea why we don’t just keep these ATVs in orbit and use them for other construction projects. Dropping them back to earth just to burn up seems a ridiculous waste of energy and raw materials to me.

    Of course, it would help if we actually had some idea what we WANT to build in the first place…

    Entrepreneurs, where are you?

    Gary 7

  2. Wzrd1

    @#1, Gary, the ATV module isn’t QUITE suited, as is, for becoming a module. There’s a lot of equipment that isn’t easily stripped, which would be in the way.

    What shocked me was the fact that the solar arrays were deployed for docking. The stress during docking would be significant.
    And it appears that the ISS was also firing a thruster, at the 7 o’clock position of the ATV.

    Phil, any data on the closure rate and final docking velocity?

  3. Edoardo Amaldi, Italian cosmic-ray physicist, d. 1989.

    The Bell Curve demonstrates that the average person is stupid. 45 years of social compassion render that an enforced rule rather than a statistical occurance. One would be a fool to buck Official Truth – and a greater fool to embrace it. Check your sources. Lay literature and talking heads do not value factual content.

  4. Michael
  5. Wzrd1

    @#3, Uncle Al, so you are saying that Edoardo Amaldi rejects Newton, Galileo Copernicus and every other scientist who rejected “Official Truth”?
    Indeed, I am at a loss as to ascertain your contribution, in context with this article and the comments so far.
    Could you kindly clarify the intent?

  6. What would make this even more spectacular is a movie of this event. Something to make people stop and pause just to observe the achievements of us (marginally) clever apes.

    Wzrd1, don’t worry about Uncle Al, he falls very high on the crank index…

  7. Wzrd1

    LarianLeQuella, I honestly doubt I’ll get a response, or if I DID get one, it’d be comprehensible. :)
    That said, I agree, a movie of it would be spectacular, but a bit long, one doesn’t rush matching velocities and docking! It’d have to be time compressed, lest the average viewer give up in boredom. People are accustomed to Sci-Fi docking, where it’s done in well under a minute…
    That’s one of the reasons I asked about the velocities of approach.

  8. MikeB

    Here’s a real-time movie of the last 23 minutes or so of the docking:

    I’m sure readers of this blog won’t be bored!

  9. There’s a further wrinkle to the story of the ATV-3 and the ISS, according to an story I learned of this morning. Failure last weekend of a power system on the ISS nearly required a “premature jettison” of the ATV-3 on Monday.

    The story is at

    Wzrd1 re comment#2, I don’t have any data to answer your questions to Phil and haven’t tried to find any, but I can imagine an engineer’s comments: If an ATV’s solar arrays need to be deployed during the pre-approach flight of the craft (a decision that would result from other craft- and mission-design decisions), then the structural engineering of the arrays and the planning of the maneuvering burns, etc., would be tailored to accommodate that. My guess is that, whatever the initial closure rate is, it’d be slowed carefully and gradually (so the burns themselves didn’t introduce major stresses, and for other reasons), and the final docking velocity is probably very low, maybe even less than a meter per second.

  10. Has anyone analyzed the pattern of city lights to determine which portion of the Earth is visible in the lower right quadrant? Or how about analyzing the star pattern and identifying the portion of the sky visible?

  11. Wzrd1

    @John Branch, from the videos (kindly posted here by MikeB), the velocity looks to be quite below a meter per second, once the ATV is close. Pretty much what one would expect, to avoid a possible risk of catastrophic damage should the automation or thrusters fail in the final seconds.
    I only remarked out of surprise. I imagine that the power needed was high enough that it justified solar arrays over the added mass of batteries or power cells.
    As usual in space programs, excellent engineering!

    Oh, from what I gathered from the videos, there are several ten minute pauses, while the approach is confirmed visually and by instrument.

  12. Ross Marsden

    The Bell Curve does NOT demonstrate that the average person is stupid. It does illustrate that half of all Americans have below average IQ. Perhaps Uncle Al has demonstrated which partition he is from.

  13. Phil

    I just realised that the light from the station isn’t a thruster, it’s just a light shining at the ATV. There’s enough gas around the station to make it visible.

  14. Simon Richard Clarkstone

    I am confused about you saying the ATVs burn up in the atmosphere, because the video talks about a turn-around time:
    5:13 “This is the first time the ESA has turned around one of these ATVs within the calendar year which of course is the target…”

    Do they just mean how often they can send a new one up?

  15. gopher65

    Simon Richard Clarkstone: yeah, they mean manufacturing, testing, and launch turn around time.

    And they do indeed just burn up. Single use.

  16. JEHermit

    This is awsome. Thanks for sharing it.

  17. Thomas Siefert

    like it’s right out of Star Trek!

    To me it looked like Firefly.

  18. Muz

    Very, Very COOL.

  19. Blargh

    Extremely cool picture, but… haven’t the Souyz craft been capable of automatic docking for the last 40 years or so?

  20. Fry-kun

    What are those flashlight-beam looking things? Maneuvering thrusters? :)

  21. JB of Brisbane

    Reminds me of the shot of the Phoenix arriving in orbit over the “other” Earth in Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s “Doppelganger” (or “Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun”). Derek Meddings would have been proud.

  22. Lenny V

    Yeah, those orange beams are indeed thrusters. Presumably the white-ish light beaming from the ISS is also a thruster, however as a previous poster suggests it could also be a light source. However if so, I’m at a loss trying to understand what gas is making it visible; the atmosphere at that altitude is extremely thin, and even here on earth we don’t usually see light sources like that unless there’s a lot of moisture (or possibly dust) in the air…

  23. Charlie

    “using just GPS and star trackers”

    I don’t have the full list, but my guess is the ATV uses many more sensors for docking.

  24. Das Boese

    The ATV is indeed an amazing machine and as an European, I’m proud of our achievement.

    That said, sadly the future of the ATV after the fifth flight in 2014 is unfortunately not very bright right now.

    Officially, the program has been ended due to obsolescence of some components, and the plan to evolve ATV towards a return capability and eventually a manned spacecraft is stuck in political and financial limbo.

    With ESA perpetually starved for funding and national interests at play, the outlook isn’t good. I often wish Europe’s governments had more foresight in regards to space exploration.

  25. Blargh

    Das Boese: sadly, most of Europe’s space money is going to the giant white elephant known as “Galileo”. With both Navstar (a.k.a. “GPS”) and GLONASS committed to free access, Europe does not need its own hideously expensive GPS.
    Especially not one whose only benefit over the existing systems (beyond the whole “geopolitical pissing contest” thing, of course) is a higher accuracy that’s only available to high paying customers – so it doesn’t even benefit the general public. Most of the industries that rely on GPS don’t need higher accuracy, and the ones that actually do already have better, free alternatives (differential GPS etc).
    TL;DR: Galileo == boondoggle.

  26. Buzz Parsec


    The ATV uses the Russian Soyuz automatic docking system,. I’m not sure if they bought (or traded for cargo capacity) the parts, including the physical docking mechanism and the electronic guidance and control systems directly from Russia, or if they worked with them and the Russian blueprints, specifications and test equipment to build their own compatible system.

  27. Yes, Uncle Al (#3), please answer Wzrd1’s question (#5). I’m curious as well.

  28. #28 Phil:
    You don’t actually expect to get any sense out of him, do you? He has never written a word of sense yet; nor has he ever responded to anyone who asked him to explain his gibberish!

  29. Ken

    @#2: It’s far simpler and lighter to simply provide enough structural support for the solar arrays to withstand the shock of docking that to implement a retraction and redeploy mechanism. Especially since a normal docking isn’t really that much stress (after all you don’t want to fatigue the docking mechanism on ISS by banging into it hard very often).

  30. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum


    …you’ll see an image which is my analysis of the star patterns in the background. It looked kinda nondescript, but I thought I might have a shot at identifying it. When I found 19G Hydra lined up with Procyon (on the extreme right hand edge) I knew I had found it. The crescent Moon is 10 degrees off the right hand edge. Too bad it wasn’t in the shot! Orion was below the horizon at the moment this was taken. Too bad it wasn’t in there too! Oh well…
    (I used to be able to directly link to images and have them show up here, but no more… Wah!)
    Any of you geography types want to try a hand at IDing the landmarks?

  31. Lemming

    At a guess, the gas that allows us to see the ISS’ light is the exhaust from the ESA’s motors?

    FWIW a nice sumary of the motors can be found at

  32. Stuart Greig


    The automated docking mechanism may be soviet but the final aproach guidance system is not. I went for an interview witha Danish company in 2003 to do the 3rd party verification of the guidance software which had been written from scratch by a French software company. Didn’t get the job in the end which was a shame as would have liked to have been in on this. I was told it was the first piece of safety critical software being used by ESA as it posed an immediate threat to life if it went wrong, unlike all the launch and guidance systems which have a longer abort/manual intervention timeframe.

  33. Harry

    I happen to work on these types of vehicles for a living. For spacecraft like this – and every satellite I’ve heard of during my career – the solar arrays are not designed in such a way that they can be re-stowed on-orbit. That would cost much weight and power, and is not necessary at all. They are designed to withstand certain loads, things like acceleration and plume impingement from nearby thrusters.

  34. vince charles

    34. Harry Said:
    April 11th, 2012 at 10:55 am

    “For spacecraft like this – and every satellite I’ve heard of during my career – the solar arrays are not designed in such a way that they can be re-stowed on-orbit.”

    The exception, then, would be Mir-type modules, including the Zarya/Zvezda design we’re looking at RIGHT NOW. Assembled Mir/ISS layouts caused solar-array conflicts, and then you’ll see arrays in “accordion” configuration. Zarya in particular has its arrays mostly re-stowed as we speak, due to conflicts with the ISS radiators.

    Of course, you’re right most of the time, and in this one instance- there’s no need compelling enough to retract the ATV’s arrays for a single use, at this “end” of the layout.


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