A massive unmanned European space transport ship capable of delivering more than seven tonnes of cargo to the International Space Station has been cleared to launch on Sunday.


An illustration shows how the Jules Verne is expected to approach the International Space Station. The cargo ship launches Sunday. ((D. Ducros/ESA))

The Automated Transfer Vehicle, dubbed Jules Verne, will be carried into orbit from a modified European Ariane 5 rocket, which will launch from the European Space Agency's port in Kourou, French Guiana.

While author Jules Verne wrote about travelling around the world in 80 days, the eponymous spaceship will move considerably faster as it orbits the Earth en route to the space station, travelling at speeds of 28,000 km/h, or fast enough to circle the Earth close to 16 times in one day.

The ESA hopes the vehicle will be able to take over many of the supply runs to the space station, which requires the regular delivery of experimental equipment, spare parts, fuel, food and water.

Sunday's launch comes two days before NASA's planned launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. To avoid a traffic jam in space, the European Space Agency said the Jules Verne will wait in a holding orbit below the space station until Endeavour completes its 16-day mission.

It's expected to connect to the space station on April 3 and stay attached for six months.

The transport vehicle is scheduled to travel to the space station every 17 months.

The cargo ships will take on added importance once NASA discontinues the space shuttle program in 2010.

Depending on the operational lifespan of the vehicles, the ESA said they plan to build five ATVs in total.

It will be the fourth different kind of the spacecraft to visit the station, joining the U.S. shuttles, Russian manned Soyuz rocket and unmanned Progress vehicle. A Japan-built spacecraft, called the Hi-II Transfer Vehicle or HTV, is also expected to visit the space station next year.