KOUROU, French Guiana - An Ariane 5 ES launch vehicle lifted Europe's fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5) to low Earth orbit July 29, sending the 20,000-kg (44,000-lb) cargo tug loaded with fuel, food, water and supplies on its final mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Ariane 5 rocket and ATV spacecraft – both built by Airbus Defense and Space – lifted off at 8:47 p.m. local time from Europe's Guiana Space Center here, with the cargo carrier inserted into a circular orbit at 260 km (160 mi.) altitude and 51.63 deg. inclination a little more than one hour after launch.

Named “Georges LeMaitre” after the Belgian priest, cosmologist and father of the Big Bang theory, ATV-5 is now being monitored jointly by operators from the European Space Agency (ESA) and French space agency CNES at the ATV Control Center in Toulouse, France. The vessel is expected to rendezvous and dock with the ISS Aug. 12, where it will remain a pressurized part of the station for the next six months.

"Six years after its maiden flight, the ATV is still a unique vehicle demonstrating what ESA and European industry can do in serving European cooperation and innovation," ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said following the launch, noting that ATV will serve as the basis of a European service module that will fly on NASA's Orion crew exploration vehicle in 2017.

Weighing 19,926 kg at launch, and with a total mass of almost 20,300 kg, including adapters and other launch-related hardware, Georges LeMaitre is the heaviest payload ever launched to orbit by an Ariane rocket. Packed with 6,550 kg of supplies, including a record 2,620 kg of dry cargo, the spacecraft is carrying less propellant to reboost the ISS orbit than previous ATV missions, though its three onboard water tanks are fully loaded with a record 855 liters combined.

Also aboard is equipment critical for scientific research aboard the ISS, including several units designed for the Electromagnetic Levitator, a facility used to melt and solidify metals in microgravity.

Managed by commercial launch service provider Arianespace, the mission marks the 60th straight success for the Ariane 5 and its 74th mission to date. Following liftoff,  the Ariane 5 main-stage Vulcain engine cut off at 2 min., 30 sec. into the flight, jettisoning the rocket's payload fairing before stage separation one minute later. A 45-minute ballistic-coast phase ensued, with the Ariane 5 Aestus upper stage engine reigniting a few moments later to circularize the ATV's orbit. Spacecraft separation occurred one hour after liftoff with the cargo vessel inserted into its target orbit at a speed of about 7,600 m per second.

Led by ESA, the ATV series of spacecraft represents a 3.75 billion ($5 billion) investment to develop, manufacture, launch and operate. Some 550 companies from a dozen ESA member states have helped build the vehicle, which has ferried 24,860 kg of cargo to the ISS since its first flight in March 2008.

Known for its complex guidance and navigation system, the ATV vehicles are the only cargo capsules fully capable of automatic rendezvous and docking with the ISS. For the ATV's final mission, Georges Lemaitre will take one week to reach the station, a period that will see the vehicle execute a planned “fly-under” of the station Aug. 8. Part of ESA's LIRIS (Laser InfraRed Imaging Sensors) experiment, the suite of instruments comprise three optical cameras built by Sodern of France and a lidar sensor supplied by Jena-Optronik of Germany that will demonstrate technologies for rendezvous with a non-cooperative object, such as an asteroid.

A series of engine burns will then bring the spacecraft to a hold point some 30 km from the ISS, from where it will align itself and continue toward the station. In the last 250 meters of its journey, the ATV's rendezvous sensors will calculate the distance, speed and angle of the spacecraft relative to the docking port on the Russian Zvezda module. The cargo vehicle will spend more than three hours maneuvering into position before docking with the space station Aug. 12.

While docked to the space station, ATV-5 will remain a pressurized part of the ISS for six months before it undocks Jan. 25. Loaded with 6 metric tons of trash, the spacecraft will head toward Earth for a controlled, destructive reentry. Unlike past ATV missions, however, Georges LeMaitre will speed through the atmosphere at a shallow angle, rather than its usual steep descent. Using a camera aboard the ISS, the three Sodern cameras aboard the ATV, and ground-based telescopes, the reentry is expected to provide data that can be used to plan the space station's ultimate demise.

“It's a way we can use this ATV to gain technical information and understand the best approach to deorbit the station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human spaceflight and operations, speaking to reporters here July 29. Gerstenmaier explained that the slower burn will pull off pieces of the spacecraft, creating a larger debris footprint in the ocean.

“This information might allow us to target a higher altitude for the space station deorbit, which would mean using less propellant, and potentially fewer Progress vehicles,” Gerstenmaier said, referring to the Russian cargo vessels that will become the sole means of deorbiting the space station at the end of its mission life, a retirement that is expected to occur within a decade.

While Georges LeMaitre marks Europe's final cargo resupply run to the ISS, ATV technology will continue to evolve as a critical part of NASA's manned spaceflight program.

“With the ATV, Europe and European industry have demonstrated they are able to build a critical element for space exploration purposes,” said Eric Beranger, head of space system programs at Airbus Defense and Space. “The Americans will entrust us with the development of the service module of their Orion capsule, which means that on top of energy and propulsion, astronauts will breathe European air and drink European water.”