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Massive, rocket-powered, robotic craft begins delivery mission to space station

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.

By Denise ChowAssociated Press / March 23, 2012

An Ariane 5 VA205 rocket with the third Automated Transfer Vehicle Edoardo Amaldi lifts off from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch centre in Kourou, French Guiana, March 23.

S. Corvaja/ESA/Reuters

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A huge robot European cargo ship launched to the International Space Station today (March 23), lighting up the night sky over the northeast coast of South America to begin a five-day journey to deliver key supplies to the orbiting outpost.

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The European Space Agency's third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) lifted off at 12:34 a.m. EDT (0434 GMT) 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.

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 load of cargo 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. EDT (2232 GMT).

"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.

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