ESA
An Ariane 5 rocket fires its engines at the European Space Agency's launch center in French Guiana early Friday, carrying the Edoardo Amaldi ATV-3 cargo craft into space.
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updated 3/23/2012 10:51:05 AM ET 2012-03-23T14:51:05

A huge robot European cargo ship launched to the International Space Station on Friday, lighting up the night sky over the northeast coast of South America as it began a five-day journey to deliver key supplies to the orbiting outpost.

The European Space Agency's third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) lifted off at 12:34 a.m. ET atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. After a brief light show, the rocket slipped through a cloud layer and soared into orbit.

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The 13-ton cargo freighter is loaded with about 7.2 tons of supplies, including food, water, clothing, experiments and fuel for the space station, according to NASA. The unmanned ATV-3 is the heaviest cargo shipment ever delivered to the station by a robotic spacecraft, ESA officials said in a statement.

The vehicle is scheduled to arrive at the space station on March 28 at 6:32 p.m. ET.

"This is just the start of a very long journey which will take the Edoardo Amaldi into space for about five months," ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said after the successful launch. "It's a good start; a very good start." [Dazzling Night Launch Photos of Europe's ATV-3]

The ATV-3 is nicknamed "Edoardo Amaldi," after the famed Italian physicist and spaceflight pioneer who is credited with helping to create the European Space Agency. Amaldi is also one of the founding fathers of CERN, the particle physics laboratory along the Swiss-French border that houses the Large Hadron Collider.

The cylindrical spacecraft is 35 feet (10.7 meters) long and 14.7 feet (4.5 meters) wide — large enough to fit a double-decker bus inside. Europe's disposable ATVs are designed to automatically dock to the Zvezda module on the Russian portion of the International Space Station.

The cargo ships then remain attached to the complex for up to six months before they are packed with garbage and deliberately sent to burn up during atmospheric re-entry.

The European ATVs are part of an international fleet of disposable robot cargo ships that are used to transport hardware and critical supplies to the space station. Russia's unmanned Progress ships and Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicles (HTVs) also regularly ferry cargo to the orbiting outpost.

ESA routinely names the ATV vehicles after historical figures who were influential to astronomy or space exploration. The agency's first ATV, named Jules Verne, made its maiden voyage to the space station in 2008. The ATV-2, dubbed Johannes Kepler, launched in 2011.

The next two planned ATVs, named ATV-4 Albert Einstein and ATV-5 Georges Lemaitre, are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The ATV spacecraft are not the only vehicles launched into orbit by Arianespace out of the European spaceport in French Guiana. Earlier this year, ESA's first Vega rocket, which is smaller than the Ariane 5 and is built to loft small satellites, blasted off from the space center. Last year, Arianespace also began launching Russian-built Soyuz rockets on unmanned missions from the South American site.

"We are now a significant space power," Dordain said. "I can say that."

You can follow Space.com staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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