Columbus module

Design of the ATV cargo ship

Europe's first transport ship developed for the manned space program could not actually carry people, however it did give the continent's future astronauts their biggest hope for entering space onboard their own vehicle. Conceived in the 1980's, the Ariane Transfer Vehicle, ATV, sported many features of a piloted ship and, potentially, could leave a technical heritage for human space flight. European space officials also stressed the importance of the ATV's highly sophisticated docking system for future deep-space missions, such as soil sample return from Mars, which by 2008 had emerged as a potential goal of the European Space Agency.

ATV structure

Color-coded schematic of the ATV structural "anatomy": the ICC module is shown in gray; the EAB in light brown; the EPB in dark brown and the SDS in white. Credit: EADS Astrium


ATV mission

With the arrival of the Columbus laboratory to the ISS in February 2008, the European Space Agency, ESA, has assumed a new responsibility as an "operational partner" in the program. As a result, ESA was now required to contribute to the operations of the ISS, at a level equivalent to 8.3 percent of its operating costs.

From the outset of the program, Europe chose to make its contribution in the form of services, with deliveries to the ISS of dry cargo, water, gases and refueling propellant, as well as a propulsion support to the ISS. The latter included contributing to the station's attitude control system (Debris Avoidance Maneuvers) and re-boosting the station to compensate for the orbital decay caused by atmospheric drag. All these jobs would be done by the ATV cargo ship.

The cost of ATV program reached 2.5 billion euros, with half spent on development and the other half on manufacturing and launch of flight vehicles. Ten ESA member states had contributed funding. (274)

General description

Launched by the Ariane-5 rocket, the ATV consists of a cargo module, which includes a pressurized section and a service module incorporating the avionics and propulsion system. During the lifetime of the program, the ATV was expected to carry up to 7.4 tons of payload to the ISS every 18 to 24 months.

Although the ATV is not a manned spacecraft, it had to be equipped with an Environmental Control and Life Support System, so that the station crew could enter its pressurized module once it is docked to the outpost. (274)


ATV technical characteristics:


Empty mass:

  • including cargo module (ICC)
  • including service module (SSA)

10,470 kilograms (274)

  • 5,150 kilograms
  • 5,320 kilograms
Launch mass (overall, estimated)
17,500 - 20,500 kilograms
Maximum launch mass with adapter
20,750 kilograms (274)
Maximum launch mass for ATV-1 Jules Verne
19,356 kilograms (274)
Payload capacity*:
Delivered cargo, including inside the cargo bay:* 7,500 kilograms (164); 7,667 kilograms (274)
•inside the pressurized module 5,500 kilograms (274)
•propellant for transfer into the SM 860 kilograms (UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide) (274)
•propellant for ISS's orbit correction with ATV's engines 4,000 kilograms (164); 4,600 kilograms (MMH and MON)(274)
•water 840 kilograms (274)
•gas (including oxygen and nitrogen) 100 kilograms (274)
•dry cargo 1,500-5,500 kilograms
•consumables 2,326 kilograms (164); 2,613 kilograms of propellants and He (274);
•disposable waste capacity during reentry 6,500 kilograms (164); 6,340 kilograms, including 840 kilograms of fluids (274);
Maximum diameter of the pressurized sections 4.51 meters (164); 4.48 m (274)
Over length

10.77 meters with adapter, probe retracted (274)

9.79 meters without adapter, probe retracted (274)

Solar panels span 22.28 meters (274)
Pressurized volume 46.5 cubic meters, including 16 cubic meters for the payload (274)

Propulsion system thrust, including

  • four main engines
  • 28 attitude control thrusters

1,960 Newtons

  • 490 Newtons
  • 220 Newtons

Flight duration

  • autonomous flight
  • when docked to the station


  • 4 days
  • 180 days
Electrical power provided by the solar arrays 3.8 kW at the end of mission
Operational orbit 350-450 kilometers; inclination 51.6 degrees
Launch vehicle Ariane-5

*Shown maximum payload that can be carried by each subsystem, but they can not be reached simultaneously on the same mission.

Sources: (164 and 274)

ATV development team:

In the ATV program, a European consortium EADS Astrium led 30 major contractors from 10 countries of the European Union, as well as from Russia and the US:

  • EADS Astrium (prime contractor)
  • Thales Alenia Space (Italy)
  • Astrium (Germany and France)
  • RKK Energia (Russia)
  • Oerlikon Space (Switzerland),
  • Dutch Space (The Netherlands)

Russian systems onboard the ATV:

  • Russian Docking System, RDS
  • Russian Equipment Control System, RECS
  • Russia Refueling System, RFS

Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: January 18, 2023

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 6, 2008

All rights reserved


insider content

A mockup of the European ATV cargo ship (right) next to a model of the Ariane 5 rocket (not to scale) displayed at Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget in 1995. Click to enlarge: 400 by 300 pixels / 40K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak


The internal cargo section of the ATV spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak

ATV tank

A propellant tank for the ATV spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Credit: MAN Technologie


Artist rendering illustrating the burn of the Ariane-5's EPS upper stage to insert the ATV cargo ship into orbit. Click to enlarge. Credit: EADS Astrium


In its typical flight profile, the ATV cargo separates from the upper stage of the Ariane-5 rocket some one hour after liftoff, while flying over the southern Pacific Ocean. Click to enlarge. Credit: EADS Astrium