The first of ESA's International Space Station (ISS) cargo spaceships - the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) named Jules Verne launched on 9 March from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. 

The spaceship successfully reached low Earth orbit, and the rocket which got it there was first of the latest Ariane 5 variant - the EADS Astrium-built Ariane 5 Evolution Storable (ES).

The launch is the latest evidence that ESA is joining the premier league of space powers. Agency director general Jean-Jacques Dordain says: "The launch of Jules Verne by Ariane 5 ES marks an important step on the way to ESA becoming an indispensable ISS partner. The ATV is the heaviest and most complex spacecraft ever built by ESA.

"But the next steps of Jules Verne's mission are as important when it comes to attaining the objective of automatic rendezvous and docking with the ISS. In meeting that objective, we will have made great strides in consolidating the role of ESA in the future international exploration of the solar system."

The ATV carries propellant, oxygen, equipment, systems, food and water for the ISS. Once docked it will also use its own propulsion system to increase the station's altitude.

The first of up to six planned ATVs, on 3 April Jules Verne will deliver 4,600kg (10,100lb) of cargo to the ISS following four weeks of rendezvous and proximity practice operations with its control centre in Toulouse, France in constant communication.

However, in future the ATV will deliver its maximum cargo mass of 7,400kg. ESA's prime contractor for the vehicle is EADS Astrium.

As well as the need to prove the automatic rendezvous and docking systems, the cargo ship will not immediately go to the ISS because NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour is to be launched on 11 March for its mission STS-123 to deliver the first part of Japan's own station laboratory module, Kibo.

ESA's laboratory Columbus was delivered to ISS on 11 February by the Shuttle Atlantis. The ATV cannot dock with ISS when a Shuttle is already docked because the force of the ATV's 20,000kg mass meeting with the station would damage the Shuttle's docking system.

Jules Verne was put through a 30-week pre-launch simulation programme at the spaceport, including 3.5 weeks of combined operations of the Ariane 5 and ATV.

The rocket's launch trajectory required two new telemetry tracking stations, one on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean and one on the Azores Islands.

After lift-off, the upper stage performed an initial 8min burn over the Atlantic and entered a 45min coast phase, before re-igniting for a 40s circularisation burn.

Separation of Jules Verne occurred at 0509h GMT, 4min after the circularisation burn, monitored by a New Zealand-based ground station. The ATV is now in the same orbital plane as the ISS but at an altitude of 260km, while the station is at 345km.

A final upper stage burn was planned 90min after ATV's deployment to re-enter the stage into the atmosphere to crash it into the Pacific ocean.

The success of the upper stage's restart capability is significant because it will be crucial for the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation system that requires multiple satellite deployment.

The launch of ATV, a payload twice as heavy as any previous Ariane 5's cargo, required a stronger upper stage structure and a restart capablity for its engine.

Ariane 5 ES qualification was completed at the end of January 2008, including a re-ignition test of the upper stage demonstrated in orbit during an Arianespace commercial mission for the launcher in late 2007.

While ESA plans to launch six more ATVs, with the sixth potentially to de-orbit the station, the European agency's original contract with Arianespace was for nine ATV launches of the cargo ship.

This contract is to be renegotiated by ESA, though an extension in the operational life of the ISS, beyond its current end date of 2016, to 2020, could see the final number of ATVs increase to 14 with two ATVs a year needed to help support an ISS crew of six.

The supply of cargo by the ATV forms part of ESA's obligations under the space station's framework agreement and effectively pays for the ISS resources drawn on by Columbus and visiting ESA astronauts.

Jules Verne will spend four months at the ISS and then be filled with waste, after which it will depart to burn up on re-entry. The next ATV, yet to be named, will be launched in 2009.