February 24, 2011. Thursday. 9.28 p.m. (IST): ``Contact confirmed.'' said a controller at the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-2) control room in Toulouse France.
This much-awaited announcement triggered a loud applause from controllers at Moscow, Toulouse and Houston. ATV-2 christened Johannes Kepler successfully docked with the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS) carrying seven tonnes of supplies and fuel for raising the altitude of the space station.
Four minutes prior to this, at 9.24 p.m.(IST) a controller at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston declared: ``Houston gives a go for final approach.'' This was followed by a announcement from the mission control centre at Toulouse saying ``Target nominal. Distance nominal.''
9.25 p.m (IST):: ``All control teams all over the world have given the go for final docking. Docking time is four minutes left,'' was a Nasa announcement. Came a voice from the ATV control centre at Toulouse: ``Systems and range nominal. Docking systems working well.'' Johannes Kepler was moving at a velocity of a half-a-metre per second.
For the docking of Johannes Kepler on Thursday night (IST) there was second-to-second co-ordination among controllers at the mission control centres at Moscow, Toulouse and Houston. They were constantly in touch with each other exchanging data.
With just two-and-a-half minutes left for docking, a controller at Toulouse said: ``Standing by for capture.'' This was followed by another annoucement saying ``Contact confirmed at 9.28 p.m. (IST).
The approach and docking were achieved autonomously by Johannes Kepler's own computers. Its own second set of sensors and computers provided an independent check. At the time of docking both the spacecraft and the space station were orbiting at a velocity of 28,000 kms per hour. However, the relative speed during the final approach remained below seven cms per second, according to the ESA.Johannes Kepler docked with Russia's Zvezda module.
According to ESA, the 20-tonned spacecraft computed its position through sensors pointed at laser reflectors on the station to determine its distance and orientation relative to the target. Immediately after the docking, ESA director of human spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, remarked: ``We are more ready than ever to head into an era of autonomy in space exploration.'' Probably what she means is that ESA will try and be independent of Nasa!
The historic docking took place over the Atlantic Ocean above the West coast of Africa. ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' watched the entire exercise on Nasa TV. BMM was doubtful whether it could see this because of some problems with computer during earlier part of the day. An engineer rushed home and managed to set it right. BMM hopes it will work for some time atleast !
The ISS is now a mini UN. On the opposite end of Johannes Kepler was the Japanese unmanned spacecraft Kounotori and not far from Kepler is the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. If Nasa's space shuttle ``Discovery'' lifts off successfully, early on Friday (IST) it will join the space station in two days.
The docking of Johannes Kepler will be followed by the transfer of cargo from the spacecraft to the space station and vice versa--the shifting of unwanted items from the station to the Johannes Kepler. The spacecraft will remained docked with the space station for 96 days before detaching, re entering the earth's atmosphere and burning up over the Pacific Ocean.
A big congrats from BMM to Johannes Kepler and all those involved with the mission.