October 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
Amy Svitek Paris
After four years of flawless performance shuttling cargo and fuel to the International Space Station (ISS), Europe's most sophisticated spacecraft appears destined to serve as a subsystem aboard NASA's next deep-space exploration demonstrator.
In late September the third of five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) was set to complete its six-month mission at the ISS, with an undocking from the orbiting outpost before burning up in Earth's atmosphere during a controlled, destructive reentry. Although two additional ATVs are slated to launch in 2013 and 2014, respectively, production of the vehicle—arguably one of Europe's most forward-looking and successful technological feats—has already ceased, with no clearly defined follow-on in the works.
Rather than evolve the Astrium-built spacecraft to conduct even more technologically challenging missions, for now the European Space Agency (ESA) is proposing to use ATV-derived technology in a propulsion module that will power NASA's Orion Multipurpose Crew Exploration Vehicle (MPCV), an in-kind contribution valued at roughly €450 million ($580 million) that would cover Europe's share of ISS common operating costs through 2020.
The argument for bartering ATV technology in exchange for keeping the lights on in Europe's Columbus research module is, not surprisingly, cost: “The barter element was cheaper than the cost of ATV-6,” ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said during the Berlin air show last month, nine weeks ahead of a key meeting of ESA ministers who, in November, will set the agency's budget for the next several years.
“It is also a way to do development activities and maintain some industrial capability,” Dordain says of the Orion propulsion-module proposal.
Germany, as Europe's largest financial contributor to the ISS, appears content with the plan, so long as groundwork is laid for a future ATV-derived capability in November.