Space freighter ready for its close-up

Image: Jules Verne automated transfer vehicle near ISS
In this image from NASA TV, the Jules Verne cargp freighter approaches the international space station on Monday for a practice maneuver. It moved to within 36 feet (11 meters) of the station's Zvezda service module during the rehearsal for Thursday's schedule docking.NASA TV via AP
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Europe's massive Jules Verne space freighter wrapped up its final dress rehearsal high above Earth on Monday, priming the ship for a Thursday docking with the international space station.

Looking something like an overweight X-wing fighter from the movie "Star Wars," the 21-ton automated cargo ship crept within a bus length of the space station Monday, then performed an escape maneuver below the orbital laboratory.

A joint international team of mission controllers led the "demo day" operations and are now discussing whether or not to proceed with Thursday's docking attempt at the space station. Monday's activities appeared to occur without issue.

Led by commander Peggy Whitson, the Expedition 16 space station crew will unload vital supplies from the spacecraft after docking, if all goes according to plan this week. Also known as an automated transport vehicle. or ATV), the craft departed Earth on March 8 and has been trailing the space station ever since.

Three control centers — in France, Russia and the United States — led the ship through its second of two testing days with some on-orbit help from Whitson and space station flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko. Saturday's dress rehearsal was completed without any problems, setting the ship up for Monday's events.

The space freighter began its dress rehearsal about 2 miles (3.2 km) behind the space station, closing the gap to the space station with a navigational assist from advanced laser- and video-ranging systems.

During the two-hour-plus operation, mission controllers commanded the Jules Verne into several built-in retreats to see if the craft could safely pull away from the space station. In the end, controllers brought it to a holding point about 36 feet (11 meters) behind the Russian-built Zvezda service module.

After the solar-panel-feathered ship parked behind the space station, Malenchenko instructed it to back off around 12:52 p.m. ET and swing below the space station to a safe point — an escape maneuver astronauts can use in the event of an emergency during docking.

The non-reusable $1.9 billion spacecraft is the first of up to seven planned by the European Space Agency. It is designed to deliver three times as much fuel, oxygen, water, hardware and other supplies to the space station as Russian Progress cargo ships can.