March 18, 2011

ESA Extends ISS Operations Through 2020

In a two-day council meeting of the European Space Agency (ESA) at its Paris-based headquarters, the European council officially agreed on an extension of operations at the International Space Station (ISS) through 2020.

Member states of ESA also stepped up financing for the next two years to keep up their commitments at the ISS.

Bernardo Patti, ESA's space station manager, said the agreement is a significant development. "This is the formal acceptance from the member states that the space station will last until 2020 and will be supported financially; and that is really excellent news," he told BBC News.

"Now that ISS is built, the emphasis in the coming years will be to maximize its exploitation," Patti added.

The ISS project is a jointly-operated program between United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe. Europe has an eight percent partnership in the project.

The five countries indicated last year that they wished to keep the ISS flying beyond 2015, but Europe had struggled with funding arrangements between its member states until now. The 10 ESA-member nations involved in the station project approved a $770-million funding at the meeting to continue to supplement the $1.9-billion package passed at the Ministerial Council in Hague, Netherlands, in 2008.

The extra funding will cover commitments until the next Ministerial at the end of 2012, when a $2.8-billion arrangement from member states will be put into effect to carry European participation in the ISS through the end of the decade. By then, it is expected Europe will have invested more than $12 billion over 25 years on the ISS project.

While the funding only covers commitments to 2020, engineers believe most of the ISS's infrastructure will be serviceable well beyond that time. The non-Russian side of the station was mostly built in Europe and its engineers believe their modules should still be usable in 2028.

Rather than just handing over cash to belong to the ISS partnership, members provide components and services to keep the station project going. For Europe, this requires that it deliver tons of supplies with huge robotic freighters.

Besides a freighter that recently docked at the ISS, the ESA has three more planned launches which should see the agency meeting its goal up to 2017. A new vehicle based on the freighter is slated to take the old one's place to continue to meet commitments beyond 2017, Patti told BBC News.


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