So, what's so special about all this then?
Well, we've all seen the science fiction stuff where automatic spacecraft do crazy stuff without even a hint of people intervention. But, when it comes down to it we here in the real world have very little practical and technical experience of such automation. This is why the space community is very excited about the weeks of tests that Jules Verne is going through, basically it is putting into practice what we have been capable of in theory for years.
So, why don't the just dock the darned thing then?
It's true that one of the purposes of JV is to resupply the ISS, and it certainly contains a bagful of goodies for the crew. But the primary purpose for this first ATV mission is to prove several really cool new technologies. For instance - Command based flight. This is where a computer that is well versed and intelligent in space travel, is flown simply by giving it a command. Think about it, to fly something in space, there are a lot of variables you need to know. Jules Verne has the know how to do this, and also a wealth of sensory information such as distance and GPS. A language of commands is defined, then a controller simply asks JV to, for example, back off... and it does so, fully aware of its surroundings and capable of altering the way in which it backs off should the unforseen happen.
The practical aspects of this are invaluable for applications where communication times are not instantaneous - like the 20 minute delay to Mars. As a result of this, remote craft can now operate autonomously and make informed decisions about how to carry out a command.
Keep watching NASA TV this week and look out for Jules Verne docking on Thursday.
Keep the Space, Spacers!
Posted by SpaceHead at 10:17 AM