July 23, 2008

Joint Manned Spacecraft Unveiled

A sky-high agreement between Russia and Europe gave the first official glimpse of a manned spacecraft.

Officials say it will one day replace Russia's Soyuz vehicle, and will also allow Europeans to take a role in crew transportation.

The reusable ship is designed to carry four people towards the Moon. Some say it is comparable to the United States Ares/Orion system.

The new spacecraft is designed to use thrusters to make a soft landing when it returns to Earth, a major change from previous crewed vehicles.

Anatoly Zak, a Russian aerospace writer and graphic designer, has produced artist's renderings of the new craft. Zak based his sketch on a design released by Russian manufacturer RKK Energia at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK last week.

In some ways, the spacecraft resembles NASA's Orion spacecraft. The nearly 20 ton Russian-European capsule is made to take six crew members into low-Earth orbit, and four members into lunar orbit.

The thrusters and landing gear seem to be the most unusual features about the spacecraft.  Zak said the craft would use the thrusters to soften its landing after re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Russian space agency Roscosmos has been speaking with the European Space Agency (ESA) since 2006 about working together on the Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS).

"If Esa and the Russian Space Agency reach agreement, Europe will supply the service module of that co-operative spacecraft," said Mr. Zak.

Technology developed for Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), a freighter used to re-supply the International Space Station will be used on the service module.

Russia plans to provide the launcher for the new craft.  The launcher could be a new prototype or a modification to an existing launcher.

According to Mr. Zak, Russia has been insisting with Europe that manned projects in the future be based in Vostchny, a new cosmodrome being built in eastern Russia.  The Russian government hopes to host its first take-off from that location in 2018.

Right now, manned Soyuz lift-offs take place at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The agencies could still opt to "man-rate" Europe's Ariane 5 launcher which currently launches from Kourou in French Guiana.  The move would allow the rocket to carry humans into space.

This move would involve the development of infrastructure to support a crew escape system, a major modification.

It is still possible that both locations could be used as a launch site.  The move would play a role in any mutual program that would require the transportation of cargo with a human crew.

But if the agreement falls apart, Europe has another option for manned flights into space.

In May, European aerospace company EADS Astrium revealed its model of a manned spacecraft. The developers described the craft as an "evolution" of the ATV.

The craft would combine the avionics and propulsion aspects of the ATV with a crew area taking the place of the current cargo segment.

"I think the main roadmap is the agreement between the European and Russian space agencies. That is their Plan A. Their Plan B is the initiative made by EADS Astrium in Bremen," said Mr. Zak.

If the agencies wish the reach the Moon in a manned spacecraft, they will need to create more powerful rockets than those they have currently been developing.

"This is an open question, there are no decisions on how to proceed," said Mr. Zak.

Roscosmos and Esa began discussions on the project after Esa Member states rejected involvement in the development of a manned space vehicle called Kliper.

The new proposals will be laid before European space ministers at a critical meeting in November.


Image Caption: Rendering of the Russian-European manned spacecraft based on a design by RKK Energia. (Anatoly Zak)


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