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Tense moments as spacecraft docks with space station

National Aerospace Laboratory NLR : 11 April, 2008  (Company News)
There will be some stressful moments ahead for the NLR operators at the Erasmus USOC in Noordwijk: on Thursday, 3 April, for the first time ever, a European supply spacecraft will automatically dock with the International Space Station.
The supply spacecraft Jules Verne ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) was launched on 9 March and will dock with the International Space Station on Thursday, 3 April. All dockings in space are risky due to the enormous weight of the supply spacecraft and the shuttle, and the damage that may occur as a result. And the docking of an entirely new type of supply spacecraft such as ATV is even more stressful. “Everyone involved in space technology in Europe will be closely following this event,” said an NLR spokesperson working at the Erasmus User Support and Operations Centre (USOC) at ESTEC in Noordwijk.

NLR employees staff the Erasmus USOC. Erasmus USOC is responsible for the operations of nine experiments at the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) currently onboard the ISS, and for the European Drawer Rack (EDR) a facility that can accommodate the various experiments. Both facilities are incorporated in the Columbus, the European space module that was joined to the ISS last February. The NLR, at the Erasmus USOC, cooperates with Belgium-based Space Applications Services (SAS). One week, the Dutch perform all operations (including the planning and preparations), the next their Belgian colleagues do.

When docking or undocking a space module, a maximum amount of power is reserved in order to allow quick intervention in the event of problems in the ISS. Some experiments will therefore be temporarily discontinued or adjusted to lower power consumption from the ground. To properly prepare for the consequences of the docking, two comprehensive tests were conducted prior to the docking. “The Erasmus operators thoroughly prepare for this situation. They must ensure that the instruments are switched back on as soon as possible after the operation,” said the NLR spokesperson. “If they’re without power, the temperature will slowly drop and once the temperature is too low, the instruments cannot be switched back on. It’s cold out there!”
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