European rocket launches cargo craft towards ISS

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An automated craft laden with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) headed into space Friday in the heaviest launch ever undertaken by Europe.

The 22-ton vessel, named after 20th-century Italian physicist, Edoardo Amaldi, was taken aloft by a heavyweight version of the Ariane 5 launcher at 4:34am GMT.

The unmanned vehicle will carry its cargo to the six astronauts currently at the space station -- Oleg Kononenko, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoli Ivanishin of Russia; US astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit; and Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands.

The station, 250 miles (400km) above the Earth, has been occupied continuously since 2000.

Weighing 857 tons before launch, the mission is reportedly the heaviest in the history of the European Space Agency (ESA).

It is the third freighter, known as an Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), to be sent to the ISS under Europe's contract with the space station project.

The size of a London double-decker bus, the Edoardo Amaldi carries a load of 7.2 tons, the biggest of Europe's three replenishment missions so far, and three times more than Russia's Progress, which also supplies the ISS.

Cargo includes oxygen, water, food, clothing, toiletries, medical supplies, spare parts and experiments, according to the European aerospace firm Astrium, which led the consortium to make the craft.

After being placed in orbit, the ATV is designed to navigate its way to the ISS by starlight and dock with it automatically.

The supply ship will be moored there for six months, providing extra room for its astronauts and occasional boosts to the station, using its onboard engines to rectify the ISS's orbital decay.

Laden with rubbish, the craft will then detach and burn up in a controlled destruction over the southern Pacific.

The two previous ATVs were the Jules Verne, launched in 2008, and the Johannes Kepler, whose one-way mission took place in 2011.

The last ATVs in the contract, named after Albert Einstein and Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre, are scheduled for launch in 2013 and 2014 respectively.