Astrium Receives $17M To Study Evolution of European Space Cargo Hauler

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PARIS — Astrium Space Transportation will study two possible evolutions of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier, including one that would perform active removal of debris from low Earth orbit, under contracts with the European Space Agency (ESA) that were announced June 21.

The two contracts, with a combined value of 13 million euros ($17 million), are for work through the end of this year.

The studies will be used in late November by a conference of ESA governments to determine whether a NASA-friendly, less-costly ATV evolution or a riskier new vehicle should be the preferred way forward.

Two options will be examined. In the first, ATV’s service module will be modified to perform a similar function — propulsion and avionics — on NASA’s Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is now in development.

NASA has made clear that this is what it would prefer that ESA do to fulfill its obligations to the U.S. agency under the international space station partnership. That agreement calls for ESA to pay its 8 percent share of the station’s common operating charges by providing NASA with regular ATV cargo flights.

ESA has ordered five ATVs. Three have flown, the final two are scheduled for launch in 2014 and 2017. Once these missions are accomplished, ESA’s operating charges will be fully paid up until 2017.

The space station is scheduled to operate at least until 2020. That leaves three years, and possibly more, that Europe needs to pay an estimated 150 million euros per year — for a total of 450 million euros — to cover its share of station costs.

Some space station officials would have preferred that Europe continue to produce ATVs as a hedge against the possible nonperformance of two private companies — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. — which have been hired to haul cargo to the space station.

Just as important, ATV is capable of reboosting the 400,000-kilogram station into its operating orbit when necessary, and is the only vehicle now in service that can deorbit the station when the time comes, for a controlled atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

But ESA officials, pointing to their agency’s role — like NASA, ESA is a research and development agency — said rebuilding multiple ATVs for a station that may be operational through 2028 is an unfulfilling job.

Some ESA governments have said that providing propulsion for the U.S.-built Orion capsule is similarly banal and will not draw public and political support. But it has the advantage of being sized to cover the debt to NASA.

These governments, and now ESA, want to look at whether ATV technologies could be used as the basis of a new vehicle capable of doing lots of things in low Earth orbit. Under the ESA contract with Astrium, the roles being looked at include docking to a future man-tended space station that would succeed today’s permanently manned orbital outpost, and actively removing dead satellites from low Earth orbit.

Reducing the amount of debris — including spent satellites and rocket stages — in low Earth orbit is viewed as a priority at NASA, ESA and other space agencies. But none has yet seen fit to fund a program with this aim.

The problem for ESA is that such a vehicle could cost double the 450 million euros they owe NASA at a time when ESA governments are facing a debt crisis that does not auger well for discretionary public spending. The other problem is that NASA would have to accept this vehicle as being of sufficient interest to accept it as a barter element.