Bad Astronomy

Albert Einstein Now in Space

launch of an Ariane 5 with ATV-4 on board
The dramatically-lit launch of an Ariane 5 rocket with Albert Einstein, a cargo resupply ship for the space station, on board. Click for your new desktop wallpaper.

The cargo resupply ship named Albert Einstein—officially called the Automated Transfer Vehicle-4—is on its way to the International Space Station loaded down with supplies.

It launched yesterday aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport (and man, how I love even writing that word) in French Guiana* at sunset. It’s carrying over 2500 kilograms (5500 pounds) of supplies to the station—the heaviest load taken to ISS by a European spacecraft. It’s a total of 1400 separate items, including food, water, clothing, equipment, even air. Once docked to the station, it has enough propellant to be able to boost the complex to a higher orbit, too: Over time, the station’s orbit drops due to drag with the Earth’s ethereally-thin upper atmosphere, so the occasional reboost is necessary.

The launch was really something, and ESA has video of it on their site. The photo at the top of this post is from the launch, and there are more on the ESA site as well. They’re breath-taking.

Einstein is in a parking orbit for a while, using solar cells to power itself. It can’t go straight to the station because at the moment a Russian Progress space capsule is docked in the port Einstein needs. The Progress is due to undock on June 11; it’s filled with trash and other unneeded material, and will be sent down into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up. Once the port is cleared, Einstein can approach and dock. That’s scheduled for June 15, 2013.

I imagine the docking will be broadcast live. I hope so, as they are beautiful and gracefully dramatic events.

[Correction (18:15 UTC): I originally wrote the spaceport was in New Guinea due to some weird hiccup in my brain.]