September 29, 2010

European Countries Contemplating ARV Space Truck Project

European countries will soon need to decide if they wish to keep working on an ATV space truck upgrade.

The robotic spacecraft takes supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), but could use an upgrade to help return cargo to Earth and even carry a human crew.

The project will cost an additional $203 million, and the countries are expected to decide by the end of the year whether to continue with it, according to BBC News.

More freighters are needed in order to keep the ISS operational until 2020, but the prospects for the orbiting platform and the ships that service it are not yet fully defined.

Luigi Maria Quaglino from Thales Alenia Space (Italy), one of ATV's manufacturers, said that he believed the Italian Space Agency (ASI) would be reluctant to approve the enhancement program.

"ASI is not supporting the ARV idea because they think it is a lot of money for a program which does not have a future," he told reporters.

"Their position is to support the maximum utilization of the space station, and that includes ATV production because it is part of the logistics treaty [between the space station partners]."

Quaglino was speaking to a group at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague this week.

The 20-ton ATV flew to the ISS in 2008, and a second truck is expected to launch next year.

This spacecraft has automatic rendezvous and docking technology, but it currently cannot return to Earth.

An Advanced Re-entry Vehicle (ARV) would be able to survive re-entry.  ESA initiated a $28 million feasibility study in 2009 to determine the basic requirements for an ARV.  Officials now expect to go to member states to ask for an additional $203 million to develop the concept.

Assuming the ISS operations would be extended into the deep 2020's, there would be plenty of time to exploit the new capability of the ARV.

"If I get 'phase B' approval by the end of the year or the beginning of next year, I can then present an informed proposal for 'phase C/D', the development phase, at the next Ministerial [Council of ESA]," Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA's director of human spaceflight, told BBC News.

"In that way, I can be confident to launch ARV by 2018. But for sure, what we want to do is re-use to the maximum extent possible our expertise on ATV. It is a unique spacecraft."

However, ESA officials are likely to face some tough talking from member states.  Others say ARV is simply not a top agenda item at the moment.

"I represent one of the states that is very much in favor of ARV because this is the future, and Europe should be active in all areas of human space," Professor Jan Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), told BBC News.

"However, the priority for Germany is full exploitation of the ISS; and if, within this full exploitation, we have some space for ARV, we would be very happy. But full ISS exploitation has to be the priority."

The ARV has drawn particular attention due to it being designed to eventually be able to carry astronauts.

Europe has no independent crew transportation system, and it currently relies on the U.S. and Russia to get astronauts into orbit.

However, a manned capability for the ARV is not something that is being considered seriously just yet.

The ARV could also carry unpressurized and pressurized cargo, transport new modules to the ISS, and even move elements around in orbit like a tug.

"The ARV service module will be much more versatile, much more flexible, than the ATV service module; and we are assessing options to transport a much broader range of payloads," Cristian Bank, who leads the ARV study at EADS Astrium, told BBC.

"That would provide us with many more mission scenarios, some of which would even go beyond the ISS lifetime, because ARV only makes sense if it is doing other missions in parallel or after the ISS," he said.

Image Credit: ESA - D. Ducros


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