By Franck Leconte
KOUROU, French Guiana (Reuters) - An unmanned Ariane rocket successfully launched from French Guiana late on Wednesday to supply cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), space officials said.
The modified Ariane launcher blasted off at 6.51 pm (2151 GMT) from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America carrying a 20 metric ton cargo vessel.
Over an hour after launch the vessel separated from the rocket, which was followed by a successful deployment of the vessel's solar panels.
It was the heaviest payload ever launched aboard an Ariane rocket. A first attempt to launch the rocket was scrubbed on Tuesday because of a technical problem
The vessel, dubbed "Johannes Kepler" in honor of the visionary 17th century German astronomer and mathematician, is the second Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV) that Europe has committed to its participation in the ISS program.
Constructed by an industrial consortium led by EADS Astrium, a division of European industrial giant EADS, the ATV was designed to deliver fuel, food, clothing and oxygen to the ISS crew as well as spare parts.
It is scheduled to dock with the space station on Feb 24.
The ATV will remain attached to the space station for more than three months as astronauts remove its cargo and fill it with rubbish from the station.
It will then be thrust back toward earth, burning up on re-entry. Any remaining debris will be targeted to a remote area of the Pacific Ocean.
The ATV has three times the cargo capacity of Russia's Progress vehicle and was developed by the ESA as part of a barter arrangement with the U.S. space agency NASA.
Instead of paying cash for its share of the station's common operating costs and also to secure additional astronaut access, ESA is providing the ATV and other components.
Its role will be of increasing importance as American space shuttles are scheduled to be taken out of service after three more missions.
This will leave a gap in American access to the station until the United States is able to operate a new generation of space vehicles.
The space station, which is about 85 percent complete, is a $100 billion project of 15 nations.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Miles; Editing by Matthew Jones)