ESA Designing Docking Mechanism For the International Space Station

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) expects to begin design work on an International Berthing and Docking Mechanism (IBDM) as soon as October as the first concrete result of a newly signed cooperation accord with NASA on space transportation, a senior ESA official said Sept. 18.

In an interview, Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA director of human spaceflight, said a contract valued at about 10 million euros ($14.6 million) for IBDM design is likely to be approved by ESA delegations in late September, and to be signed in October with prime contractor Verhaert Design and Development of Belgium.

Belgium and Canada — an associate ESA member government — will be leading the work, which by 2011 will be merged into development under way in the United States under separate NASA contracts. Ultimately, Di Pippo said, Russia and Japan could be brought into the program to assure the resulting hardware is adopted by all the current partners in the international space station.

NASA and ESA on Sept. 11 signed a broad memorandum of understanding on space transportation systems that ESA officials say should result in greater compatibility and interoperability in orbital hardware and launch vehicles.

Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s launcher director, said Sept. 18 that the agreement is unprecedented in that it permits both agencies to work on developing common elements for rocket and orbital hardware systems without undue burdens from each side’s technology transfer regulations.

Longer term, Fabrizi said, NASA and ESA could decide to launch gear on each other’s rockets with assurance that the launcher-payload interfaces are common and require no new development. “In that sense, the agreement is a breakthrough in the field of launchers,” Fabrizi said. “We have never had this type of agreement with NASA before.”

Di Pippo said the growing consensus among the space station partners that the orbital complex will be operated until at least 2020 is forcing all of them to consider how to reduce the station’s annual operating costs. Similarly, a long-term space-exploration plan for the Moon or Mars will benefit if the participating nations take maximum advantage of common designs.

Inside ESA, Di Pippo’s division is beginning early design work on a second-generation Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo-transport capsule. The inaugural ATV was launched in March and made a near-flawless docking to the station in April. After delivering several thousand kilograms of water and dry cargo, and using its own power to reboost the station into a higher orbit, the ATV was filled with garbage and sent on a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

A strip of the Pacific Ocean had been cleared of maritime traffic, and those parts of the ATV that did not disintegrate fell into the ocean.

ESA owes NASA four more ATV flights between 2010 and 2015 as part of a barter agreement under which ESA gets access to the station’s onboard resources for Europe’s Columbus laboratory. The next ATV is scheduled to be launched aboard Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher in November 2010.

A second-generation ATV, called the Ariane Reentry Vehicle, would return cargo from the station instead of being destroyed.

ESA and ATV’s major contractors, led by Astrium Space Transportation, have long sought to insert ATV into NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to deliver cargo to the station after the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle.

Di Pippo said that while such an idea is not explicitly mentioned in the NASA-ESA memorandum, it is one of the possible consequences, at least until the cargo carriers being developed for NASA by Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are proven. In addition to developing new cargo carriers, the two U.S. companies are building new rockets to carry them into orbit.

Yet to be decided, she said, is whether NASA’s use of ATV would be atop a U.S. Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rocket, or as part of a package that included a launch aboard Europe’s Ariane 5. Placing ATV on a U.S. rocket would require an investment on the order of $70 million to render ATV and the U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) compatible.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said Sept. 16 the U.S. space agency has looked at utilizing international partners to fill potential cargo shortfalls but has no firm plans to do so.

“I don’t believe any decisions have been made, and we are still counting on the commercial teams to provide the service, but of course it’s fabulous to have international partners to provide that capability as well,” Garver said in an interview with Space News. “As a team, if there were major setbacks, we might look at some contingency plans.”

Garver also said NASA has no plans to launch ATV atop EELVs.

“My sense is that the timing for an ATV advance purchase of three years would be … outside of what you would be willing to do. And I don’t know you could get an ATV on an EELV in three years,” she said. “They’re a partner, and there might be some possibility of barter arrangements and different capabilities we need if it came to that, but again, there’s no direct planning for it at this point.”

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium, said Sept. 18 that the Europeans are proposing NASA use an Ariane 5-launched ATV only as a temporary gap-filler while awaiting full qualification of the U.S. carriers.

Le Gall gave a presentation on behalf of ATV and Ariane 5 on Aug. 5 to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine.

In his presentation, Le Gall said NASA’s space station resupply requirements call for some 41,000 kilograms of cargo to be delivered to the space station between 2010 and 2015. Given the schedule risks involved in qualifying two new rocket and cargo carriers, he said, NASA is likely to have a shortfall of 3,000-12,000 kilograms per year during that period.

Amy Klamper contributed to this story from Pasadena, Calif.