ESA Favors Upgrading Orion over Building In-orbit Service Tug

by

PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) is proposing that its 19 member governments finance development of a module to power NASA’s Orion crew transport vehicle and limit work on a competing proposal — a robotic vehicle that would perform multiple tasks in low Earth orbit — to initial studies.

Development of this vehicle, whose chores would include removing dead satellites and rocket stages from orbit, would accelerate starting in 2015, according to the ESA proposal.

The agency also is proposing to build and launch a lunar lander — a project long backed by Germany — that would launch in 2018 and would be followed, in 2022, by a mission to retrieve samples from the Moon’s south pole.

Germany, Portugal and Canada have been financing early studies of the lunar lander mission, with Astrium GmbH’s Bremen, Germany, division managing the early industrial work.

ESA’s proposals are part of the preparations for a late-November meeting of member governments’ ministers to determine Europe’s multiyear budget and program priorities. These meetings occur every three or four years.

The route to a final decision on what Europe’s future space program will look like includes multiple iterations by ESA based on its governments’ indications of what they want to do, and what they can afford.

The current proposals are thus at risk of being modified as ESA governments’ financial prospects become clearer.

ESA and NASA have been discussing how ESA might compensate NASA for Europe’s 8.3 percent share of the international space station’s future operating charges. Until about 2017, the agency is repaying NASA, as the station’s general contractor, through launches of European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo ships to the station.

But with the station partners now all but committed to operating the station at least through 2020, ESA is searching for another “barter element” to succeed ATV.

NASA has said a propulsion module for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would fill ESA’s obligations to NASA, which have been estimated at about 450 million euros ($600 million) over three years.

But several ESA members, notably France and Italy, have argued that the Orion module, which would use ATV-derived technologies, does not provide sufficient technology interest or public impact.

Instead, these governments have proposed development of a vehicle that would perform multiple tasks in low Earth orbit, including debris removal.

According to an ESA document presented to European industry during an April 13 meeting on ESA’s future technology requirements, the agency is splitting the difference. The Orion module would be developed immediately for a first flight in 2017, with the low-orbit service vehicle to be limited to technology development studies.

As the technologies for this vehicle are better mastered, and as ESA’s budget permits, full-scale development could be decided at the next ESA conference of ministers, set for 2015. A first flight could be conducted in 2019, followed by a mission including an in-orbit rendezvous in 2022.

How fast ESA can begin work on the lunar lander and the low-orbit servicing vehicle will depend in part on what other budget commitments are made at the November meeting, scheduled to occur in Caserta, Italy.

In addition to deciding the future direction of Europe’s launcher sector and three big-ticket Earth observation programs, ESA governments will be asked to set the level of space science funding for the next three to five years, and to decide how much they want to spend in using the space station.

On the exploration side, the agency will present the latest version of its ExoMars mission following NASA’s announcement that the U.S. agency could not afford to participate in it. Russia has stepped in to offer Proton rockets to launch the two-part ExoMars hardware — a telecommunications orbiter and descent module in 2016, and a rover in 2018 — as part of a broader Euro-Russian collaboration.

ESA has not yet won support for the new ExoMars, estimated to cost 1.2 billion euros. The agency has secured a promise from ExoMars prime contractor Thales Alenia Space that despite the financial unknowns, work on the telecommunications orbiter is moving fast enough to assure its readiness for a 2016 launch.

ESA will solicit a fresh slice of ExoMars funding in June, to permit the work to continue until the November ministerial conference.

For these and other missions, ESA has asked Eurospace, whose members include most European space hardware providers, to send ESA an assessment of what technologies could be provided — at what cost — to ESA’s future program plans under the current scenario. ESA has asked that the industrial responses be sent by late May.