Japan's unmanned freighter is on its way to the ISS

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) enjoyed a successful launch of its H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) this morning from the island of Tanegashima, south of Japan. The launch was overseen by JAXA engineers in Tsukuba, Japan and NASA flight controllers in Houston. It represents a big step forward for the International Space Station, as Japan's automated freighter will be able to resupply the mission even after the American shuttle fleet is grounded in 2010 (or, as suggested by the presidential review panel, as late as 2015).

Japan's HTV freighter is entirely unmanned and is currently carrying 4.5 tons out of a possible 6 tons of equipment and supplies to the ISS.

"This HTV-1 vehicle is a demonstration flight to verify its functionality and performance," Masazumi Miyake, one of JAXA's senior officials in the US, told the BBC. "After completion of this mission we are planning to launch one operational HTV per year on average."

Unlike other craft, the HTV will not try and dock on its own. Instead, it'll park itself under the ISS and be pulled into place by a robotic arm.

JAXA, via BBC News and Spaceflight Now