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Europe to explore the future of the ATV

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jun 23, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Astrium has been awarded contracts by the European Space Agency to study how the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and its technology could be developed for future space missions.

Astrium has been asked to make two studies and report its findings to the European Space Agency (ESA) later this year. ESA is paying Astrium €13m for the two studies.

The first study will investigate possible use of the ATV's propulsion and avionics systems on NASA's Orion spacecraft. Astrium will also explore how the ATV's technologies could be used to develop an "autonomous space vehicle".

The ATV's autonomous docking mechanism is greatly admired and offers something different to SpaceX's Dragon which berths with the space station by being grappled.

NASA is interested to see if some of the ATV's autonomous technology could be used by its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Orion, which would be launched by NASA's Space Launch System, is scheduled to have its first unmanned test flight in 2014. The Space Launch System and Orion are being developed by NASA for missions beyond Low Earth Orbit to destinations that could include he Moon, Mars or asteroids.

Sen understands from sources close to ESA that future possibilities to be studied will also include converting the spacecraft to carry human crews.

How ATV could be adopted to carry crew. Credit: ESA
Artist illustration of how an ATV could be adopted to carry crew. Credit: ESA

ESA's web site outlines how the ATV could be developed to carry crew. The first step would be development of cargo re-entry capsule equipped with a heat shield that is able to return to Earth rather than, as at present, burning up during a controlled re-entry. The next step would be a European crew transportation system which would require further modifications and additional technologies, with part of the re-entry vehicle being transformed into a human rated re-entry capsule.

Developing spacecraft to carry crew is a big step up from cargo craft due to the additional safety mechanisms that need to be inherent in the craft's design. A number of US companies are aware of the challenges as they seek to develop craft capable of carrying crew for NASA and space tourists. These companies include SpaceX, which successfully delivered cargo to the space station recently. Other companies developing spacecraft for human spaceflight are Boeing, which is developing its Crew Space Transportation-100 craft, Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is developing the Dream Chaser, and Blue Origin.

Europe contributes to the costs of operating the space station by a providing services rather than cash. The current deal is for Europe to provide five ATVs for cargo delivery.

The first two ATVs, named named Jules Verne and Johannes Kepler, launched in 2008 and 2011 respectively. The third ATV, Edoardo Amaldi, is current docked with the space station have shipped over 6 tons of cargo and propellant in March 2012. The fourth ATV, Albert Einstein, is currently under construction and will be shipped to the Kourou launch site later this year to be prepared for launch in March next year. The fifth and final ATV under current arrangements is due to launch in 2014 and will be named after Belgian astronomer and priest Georges Lemaître.

As well as Europe's ATV, other spacecraft taking cargo to the space station are Russia's Progress supply ship and, having demonstrated its abilities recently, SpaceX. Later this year another US company, Orbital Sciences, will perform demonstration flights under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

With the space station expected to continue to operate until at least 2020, Europe is exploring whether it can meet its 8% contribution to the running costs by supply further technology and services in lieu of cash.

ESA's Ministerial Council will meet in November 2012 in Italy to discuss future vehicle development.

Astrium, a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS, is one of the largest space companies in the world with a turnover of almost €5 billion and 18,000 employees worldwide.