The Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the ESA's new resupply ship, successfully docked with the International Space Station at 10:40 EDT today.
"It was a first for Europe and we achieved it on the first try," said ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain during a post-docking webcast. "I think it's an incredible technical feat."
The Jules Verne ATV lifted off almost one month ago via Ariane 5ES rocket from the Guiana Space Centre (see the Jules Verne take-off video). Roughly the size of a London double-decker bus, the craft does more than just ferry supplies to the ISS. The Jules Verne also carries extra fuel to push the space station into a higher orbit, a function that is required to maintain the ISS at a proper altitude.
At a distance of 249 m, the ATV computers use videometer and telegoniometer data for final approach and docking manoeuvres. The approach of the ATV to the ISS slows down to 7cm/s...
For the final rendezvous manoeuvres, the ATV uses its eye-like sensors, combined with additional parallel measurement systems, which ensure an automatic docking with an incredible 1.5 cm precision while the spacecraft and the ISS are circling the Earth at 28 000 km/h.
The earliest reference that I can think of to the idea of an "eye-like sensor" for guidance is from the 1931 story Out Around Rigel by Robert J. Wilson:
"Just keep that star on the cross hairs. It's Pi Orionis, a little out of our course, but a good target since it is only twenty-five light-years away. Half the light is deflected on this screen, with a delicate photoelectric cell at its center. The instant the light of the star slips off it, a relay is started which lights a red lamp here, and in a minute sounds a warning bell..."
(Read more about the Photoelectric Course Warning)