Orion Spacecraft Gets A Boost From European ATV Technology
January 17, 2013

NASA And ESA Sign An Agreement To Power Up Orion Spacecraft

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement with NASA this week to contribute to the Orion spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch in 2017. Orion's ultimate mission will be to carry astronauts farther into space than ever before. This will be achieved using a module based on Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) technology.

Since 2008, ATVs have been resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). ATV Albert Einstein, the fourth in the series, is now scheduled to launch from Kourou, French Guiana, in 2014.

In the case of Orion, the ATV-derived service module will sit directly below the crew capsule to provide propulsion, power, and thermal control. The module will also supply water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

This latest agreement between ESA and NASA continues the spirit of cooperation that makes the ISS possible.

Performing many functions during a mission to the ISS, the ATV proves itself a versatile showcase of European technology. The ATV space freighter reboosts the Station, can push the orbital complex out of the way of space debris and serves as an additional module for the astronauts while it is docked. When the module leaves the ISS at the end of its mission, it departs filled with waste material.

“ATV has proven itself on three flawless missions to the Space Station and this agreement is further confirmation that Europe is building advanced, dependable spacecraft,” said Nico Dettmann, Head of ATV´s production program.

Thomas Reiter, ESA director of Human Spaceflight and Operations says, “NASA´s decision to cooperate with ESA on their exploration program with ESA delivering a critical element for the mission is a strong sign of trust and confidence in ESA´s capabilities, for ESA it is an important contribution to human exploration.”

"This is a new page in the transatlantic co-operation," said Reiter. "This is the first time that ESA is involved in the critical path for a human transportation system. It is a fantastic perspective for the future, taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit to new destinations for exploration."

Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, agrees, “It is a testament to the engineering progress made to date that we are ready to begin integrating designs of an ESA-built service module with Orion.”

Orion's first mission, scheduled for launch in 2017, will be an unmanned lunar flyby that will return to Earth atmosphere at a speed of 11 km/s (7 miles/second). This will be the fastest reentry ever accomplished.

If all goes well with this mission, BBC News reports, a repeat performance with astronauts aboard is tentatively scheduled for 2017.

The hope in Europe is that this deal will develop into a long-term relationship, thereby increasing the chances of European astronauts joining their American colleagues on deep space missions.

Like the ISS, the new Orion agreement will be paid for using a barter arrangement. NASA will not pay cash for the module; rather they will receive it as compensation for the costs associated with Europe's use of the ISS.

So far, these costs have been covered by ATV cargo deliveries, but the production of ATVs is nearing its end. Without the Orion deal, Europe would owe the US the equivalent of $600 million USD for 2017 — 2020.

"More importantly than that financial piece is just the experience gained through the International Space Station," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

"To build that wonderful facility on orbit, we needed to work a lot of technical issues, a lot of technical problems. And that experienced gained and that trust that grew between our European partners and our NASA teams allowed us to go ahead and put together this service module agreement you see today."

Key elements of the ATV design will be used in the Orion module. The research for this is already quite advanced because of feasibility studies done in recent years that considered how the ATV could be made into a crew vehicle. The Associated Press reports that NASA will supply no-longer-used space shuttle engines for use on the service modules.

"We are not starting from scratch," Mr. Reiter explained. "Were that the case, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to meet the scheduling constraints."

Britain's offer at the recent ESA Ministerial Council in November to put $27million USD into the production cost of the vehicle made it possible to cement this agreement between ESA and NASA. Britain could expect some return on its investment, according to ESA rules. This return, according to Mr. Reiter, could take the form of equipment procured for use on the space station's European science laboratory, Columbus.

Orion was originally part of the Constellation program at NASA, which was cancelled by President Obama. Orion survived by being repurposed from that moon base concept to the current flight configuration.

The capsule is scheduled for a test flight next year where it will fly 3,600 miles away and then return.