Europe’s ATV Readied for November Launch to ISS

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LES MUREAUX, France — Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is scheduled to be shipped by boat to the Guiana Space Center launch site in July in preparation for a November launch to the international space station, program managers said.

The ATV, whose current cost is estimated at about 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion), will be part of a shipment of some 50 crates weighing 300,000 kilograms to be loaded onto the Toucan transport ship in Rotterdam, Netherlands for the 12-day voyage to the French Guiana spaceport, according to ATV program managers at Astrium Space Transportation, located here.

In May 24 briefings on the program’s status, Astrium Space Transportation officials expressed cautious optimism that the ATV’s Functional Simulation Facility is nearing final qualification. This facility, which is located here, simulates all phases of the ATV mission as the unmanned, 19,400-kilogram vehicle approaches the station, stops or backs off if ordered, and then docks softly enough to avoid any threat to the station’s astronauts.

“We have a schedule of about 61 tests on this facility that need to be performed with the customer [the European Space Agency] and we have completed 57 of them,” said Nicolas Chamussy, ATV program manager at Astrium Space Transportation. He said the remaining tests were not the most demanding.

Even so, Chamussy said the company is maintaining the double work shift on the Functional Simulation Facility; teams work nonstop between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m., he said. A final series of tests at the European Space Agency (ESA) Estec technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, will be run in the coming weeks before the maiden-flight ATV model, called Jules Verne, is made ready for transport to the launch site. Jules Verne has been at the Estec center for about three years.

But as has long been the case with ATV – perhaps the most complicated piece of hardware ever built in Europe – the schedule depends in part on events occurring elsewhere in the international space station program and with ATV’s Ariane 5 launch vehicle.

A manufacturing glitch in the GPS navigation receiver being built in Russia has delayed the receiver’s placement on the international space station’s Russian module, where ATV will dock.

The receiver is scheduled to be installed on the station’s exterior during an astronaut spacewalk before the ATV launch.

The specially designed Ariane 5 rocket – the Ariane 5 ES – will place the ATV into a 260 kilometer orbit inclined at 51.6 degrees relative to the equator.

While it has been declared fit for service, an Ariane 5 in the ATV configuration has never flown.

In particular, its restartable upper-stage engine, has not been flown. This stage must be ignited three times during the mission, with the last burn designed to take the Ariane 5 upper stage out of the ATV’s orbit – the orbit used for all vehicles flying to and from the station.

A commercial Ariane 5 mission scheduled for September will test a similar upper stage, called the Ariane 5 GS variant, restarting it after it has delivered its two commercial telecommunications satellites to their assigned drop-off location in geostationary-transfer orbit.

Astrium Space Transportation and ESA do not decide alone on ATV. Because of the dangers inherent in having such a large vehicle navigate toward the space station, NASA and the Russian Space Agency also must sign off on ATV’s readiness to begin service. The ATV flight will be managed from Toulouse, France, where a dedicated facility has been built, but NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Russia’s mission control center outside Moscow also will have a say in ATV’s final approach to the international space station.

In addition, NASA’s White Sands, N.M., facility that manages the tracking and data-relay satellites and ESA’sRedu, Belgium, center that manages ESA’s Artemis data-relay satellite – both satellite systems will be used to maintain contact with the station and ATV – are part of ATV’s elaborate communications loop.

ATV is being developed as a way for the European Space Agency to supply services to the space station partnership instead of having to pay cash for Europe’s pro rata share of the annual utility costs incurred by NASA in managing the station and its activities. Under current plans, four additional ATVs will be launched to fulfill Europe’s obligations for station maintenance.

Astrium Space Transportation has an adjustable contract with ESA to provide six additional ATVs – if needed – for a total price of about 800 million euros. ATV managers also are hopeful of winning contracts from NASA in the period that is scheduled to begin with the U.S. space shuttle’s retirement in 2010 through 2015 when a new vehicle is set to enter service.

The Russian Progress vehicle, with about one-third ATV’s capacity, will continue to service the station, and Japan’s HTV vehicle, which resembles the ATV but is smaller, also will be available during that same period.

In addition, NASA has awarded development contracts to two U.S. companies to provide station cargo services under a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services.