May 6, 2011

US, Europe Could Build Spacecraft Together

What is the future of spacecraft now that the space shuttle program is in the final stages of winding down? Perhaps it could be a program that places heavy payloads into orbit without the need for manned missions if a partnership between the US and European space agencies can be worked out, BBC News is reporting.

European Space Agency's Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain explains that a fresh concept being considered to bring materials or supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in one load with an updated Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

The current ATV has been in use for several years and is a fine platform, able to bring up to 7.5 tons of supplies and equipment but only three vehicles are currently in production. It is essentially being shut down at the same time as the US shuttle fleet.

Europe is now looking to develop a derivative of the ship and a joint venture with the Americans on a future vessel is being discussed. Dordain said the new concept must have the capabilities of the existing vehicle, such as its automatic rendezvous and docking technology.

He wants the broad concept laid out by the autumn so that he can present it to European Space Agency (ESA) member states for discussion. "We shall work with the US space agency in a way that I can present in October a proposal on a new vehicle that in my view should be derived from the ATV, but which for the first time will be embedded into a common vision between NASA and ESA," he told BBC News.

"I cannot tell you what type of vehicle it will be because this is not something I can define myself; this is something we have to define together - NASA and ESA. "What I have in mind is a part that will be built by Europe and a part by the United States; and which together can make a transportation vehicle."

The ATV is currently the largest spacecraft built in Europe and once docked to the ISS, crew members have room to freely move inside of it.

Plans for the ISS in the coming years may include some spectacular ideas that a large capacity payload vehicle would be crucial to achieving. Primarily, the ISS will continue to be a platform for microgravity science experiments.

Some of the ambitious plans, still in the concept phase, include becoming testbed for the technologies and techniques humans will need when they push out beyond low-Earth orbit to explore asteroids, the moon and even Mars.

A new ATV, with a larger capacity than is currently available, could allow the ISS to be the assembly site for piecing together deep-space craft that could launch from orbit saving the expense and engineering of launching such an exploration from the surface of the planet.

"People are thinking about ideas that have increasing degrees of complexity," explained ESA's ISS program manager, Bernardo Patti.

"First, perhaps it is a check-out mission of an exploration vehicle to the ISS. The second is to make a sortie that goes well beyond low-Earth orbit - with a crew or without a crew. And then having an Apollo 8 type of visit around the Moon makes perfect sense," he told BBC News.

Germany is the lead ESA member on the ISS project. Its contribution accounts for some 40% of the ESA part of the station program, and the head of the German space agency (DLR), Professor Jan Woerner, told the BBC he did not think the finances were available at present to proceed with a post-ATV ship.

Woerner would like to see the ATV have the capability to re-enter the atmosphere and be reused, a feature the current ATV cannot do. "Of course all the numbers have been defined within the financial crisis and my hope is that in three years' time or so, we will have new numbers, new chances, new possibilities - and that we can raise this question again."


Image Caption: An unpiloted ISS Progress resupply vehicle approaches the International Space Station. Credit: NASA


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