Just 3 weeks into its delicate fuelling operations, the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle has been successfully loaded with the vital oxygen required to enable the crew of the International Space Station to breathe and is gearing up for launch.

The maiden voyage of the first European International Space Station (ISS) resupply spaceship is targeted for no earlier than 22nd February 2008 and when in orbit, the huge payload of oxygen will be transferred to the ISS's atmosphere for the crew to breathe.

Since early January this year, the launch campaign of the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has intensified with the month-long loading operations taking place in the huge fuelling chamber inside the vast S5 integration building at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Teams from Astrium sites in Bremen, Lampoldshausen in Germany, Stevenage in the UK and Les Mureaux of France are in charge of the delicate operations, while specialists from Italy are involved in loading the highly explosive, pure oxygen gas. Up to 20kg of oxygen will be loaded onto the ATV and once in orbit, this is manually injected by the crew into the ISS atmosphere. For up to six months, the ATV remains attached, mostly in dormant mode with the hatch to the ISS open.

Dominique Siruguet, ESA ATV Campaign Manager, described the delicate loading process, “The engineers first created a vacuum in the ATV gas tank and its circuit. Then, after checking the system is leak-proof, they connected the oxygen tank to transfer the gas. But before this, they had to implement many strict safety procedures and create a very clean environment. This is all time consuming but necessary to avoid any risk with the highly explosive and flammable oxygen.”

Many of the safety measures are needed to prevent any hydrocarbon particles from entering the on-board and ground equipment, where they would present a fire risk. The whole Jules Verne ATV weighs in at 19.4 tonnes, including approximately 1,338kg of ‘dry cargo’ and during fuelling and oxygen operations, the ATV is electrically completely shut down for safety reasons.

After arduous and fragile loading operations, it seems the ATV is soon to be ready for its launch and crucial transfer mission. Nicolas Chamussy, ATV Programme Manager for EADS Astrium, explained, “In the first week of February, Jules Verne ATV – filled with a total 6.5 tonnes of four different propellants and 20 kg of oxygen – will be moved to the Final Assembly Building where it will be mated to the Ariane 5 launcher. We then enter the Ariane 5/ATV 'combined operations plan', which ends with the final countdown.”

According to the needs of the ISS and its partners, the ATV remains an integral Station element for up to six months, and delivers dry cargo, fuel, water and oxygen to the ISS.