August 28, 2009

ESA In Talks To Purchase Soyuz Spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to buy a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia in an effort to maintain flight opportunities for its astronauts, BBC News reported.

ESA officials met in Moscow to explore the possibility of increasing the production of the craft from four to five a year. The ESA could then buy its own vehicle "“ possibly in a joint purchase with Canada, which is also looking for more ways to put its astronauts into space.

The U.S. shuttle fleet is expected to be retired in 2010/11, which means fewer humans will be going into space in the coming years and the Soyuz craft will be the only way of getting to the International Space Station (ISS) for some time.

"We're hopeful a deal on Soyuz could be put in place for 2013," said Simonetta Di Pippo, the director of human spaceflight at ESA.

She told BBC News that from 2013 on they would like to have at least one European astronaut per year flying and one of the proposals is to buy a full Soyuz.

The ESA discussed these plans with Russian officials at the International Aviation and Space Salon, MAKS 2009.

However, technical aspects such as increasing production of Soyuz at manufacturer Energia and how the additional flight would be accommodated at the station's docking ports remain to be discussed.

Di Pippo said the feeling with the Russians was really good and they had a great meeting.

"I think in two or three months, we will be able to come out with a firm proposal," she added.

Europe recently appointed six new candidates to its astronaut corps. But the ESA has to plan ahead now to find them rides into space even though the rookies must complete at least three years' basic training before even being considered for a mission.

The ESA is close to an agreement with the Americans on adding an extra European "room" to the International Space Station, according to Di Pippo. She said the intention is to leave one of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLMs) at the ISS.

The Italian-built MPLMs are the large cylindrical packing boxes that hold about 7-10 tons of supplies put in a shuttle's payload bay when the orbiter flies logistics missions to the orbiting platform.

The pressurized module is picked up by the shuttle's robotic arm and attached to a station docking port, where astronauts can then unload its contents.

The MPLMs normally return home immediately with the shuttle, but with the orbiter fleet's retirement, the intention now is to leave the module in space to provide extra volume.

However, Di Pippo said the main issue is that the MPLM, known as Raffaello, was designed to stay in orbit for 15 days, so they would need to reinforce the protection from meteorites and debris.

NASA wants to consider it mostly as a storage compartment since that would allow volume to be freed up elsewhere on the station for science activity.

European engineers will arrive at NASA's human spaceflight HQ in Houston, Texas, next month to begin the design work on upgrading Raffaello for its new role.

Raffaello will not need to return to Italy for the upgrade, as the strengthening work can be done in the United States.

Di Pippo is hopeful that the idea could proceed under a barter arrangement with the U.S., whereby the European work would represent an "in kind payment" to replace equivalent cash purchases ESA currently makes for ISS services provided by the Americans.

"The launch is scheduled for September next year so we need to start work right now," Di Pippo said.


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