Europe launches record cargo for International Space Station

Ariane launch The Albert Einstein freighter was the heaviest ever payload for an Ariane 5

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Europe has launched its giant robotic freighter towards the International Space Station (ISS)

The vehicle, dubbed Albert Einstein, is carrying food, water, equipment and fuel for the orbiting outpost.

The space truck left Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana at 18:52 local time (21:52 GMT) on Wednesday.

At 20.2 tonnes, the Albert Einstein freighter is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Europe.

The vessel will spend the next 10 days performing checks and manoeuvres designed to take it to the vicinity of the 415km-high station.

ATV Albert Einstein being prepared for launch

A fully automated docking is planned for Saturday 15 June.

The European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut Luca Parmitano will be in position at the rear of the ISS to watch the attachment.

The Italian only arrived in orbit himself last week and the freighter will be carrying some special supplies specifically for him, including a range of national foods such as lasagne and risotto.

Albert Einstein - also known by its generic name Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) - is the fourth such vehicle produced by Esa and European industry. One more vehicle is planned to fly next year.

The ATV assembly line will then be turned over to producing a propulsion unit for Nasa's new crew ship, Orion.

This vehicle will take astronauts beyond the space station to destinations such as asteroids and Mars. It will need a "service module" to push it through space and Nasa has engaged Esa to adapt ATV technology for the purpose.

Albert Einstein will stay attached to the ISS until October. Astronauts will gradually remove its 6.6 tonnes of supplies, replacing them with rubbish that has built up on the platform. When the freighter leaves the station, it will take this refuse on a destructive dive into the Earth's atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Orion and its European service module An artist's impression of the Orion capsule attached to its European-built service module

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