NOORDWIJK, Netherlands —
After three years of tests, Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), an unmanned space tug, is scheduled to begin a two-week journey to its French Guiana launch site for
a 16- to 18-week-long launch preparation campaign.
The vehicle, along with up to 400,000 kilograms of equipment, is scheduled to leave the European Space Agency’s ()
Estec technology center here
July 13 for Rotterdam, where it will be loaded onto a ship for the ocean voyage to the Guiana Space Center, on South America’s northeast coast. Departure from Rotterdam is scheduled to take place
July 17, followed by
arrival at the launch base on
currently is scheduled to be launched, aboard a specially designed Ariane 5 rocket, to the international space station in January, where it will dock after a series of tightly controlled approaches.
The inaugural ATV, called Jules Verne, will be the first of a scheduled five ATV vehicles that Europe will send to the space station in the coming years to pay its share of station operating costs.
has spent about 1.3 billion euros ($1.76
billion) building and testing ATV and its control center, a figure that also includes its Ariane 5 launch.
John Ellwood, ESA’s ATV program manager,
said the agency expects to spend around 325 million euros to build and launch each of the four follow-on vehicles
to be built by a large contracting team led by Astrium Space Transportation.
If launched as scheduled in January, the ATV would
at the orbital complex several weeks after Europe’s Columbus habitable laboratory, which is scheduled to be launched by a
U.S. space shuttle in December.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain has said it would prefer ATV to launch before Columbus – a way of signaling ESA’s ability to pay for its station-related resources in kind before its major station component, Columbus, arrives to begin using those resources.
But during briefings at ESA’sEstec technology center here June 28, agency officials dismissed this as a non-issue, saying their relations with NASA, the station’s prime contractor, are sufficiently friendly and flexible to permit even a substantial time lapse between Columbus’ arrival and the start of ATV service to the station.
Alan Thirkettle, ESA’s space station program manager,
said ESA’s obligations to NASA are to provide 20,000 kilograms of ATV-delivered payload to the station in the form of water, fuel and other gear for the station’s astronauts.
Once ESA’s own payload demands are accounted for, that 20,000-kilogram debt to NASA – and an estimated 800 kilograms of payload owed to Russia – is covered by four additional ATVs beyond the first one.
In the station’s early development, ESA and NASA had roughly calculated that a kilogram of payload delivered to the station should be valued at about $22,000. Thirkettle said this figure no longer means much as the agencies have moved to a pure barter relationship. ESA’s 20,000-kilogram debt is expected to be paid by 2015, Thirkettle said.
Dordain has said that ATV’s arrival at the Guiana Space Center will be such a drain on the spaceport’s resources – also used to maintain a particularly busy commercial-launch schedule this year – that everyone involved will be motivated to complete the work as quickly as possible.
Ellwood said the launch campaign as currently planned would make it possible for a December launch, but that the earlier date would leave insufficient margin for glitches, should they occur.
One example, Ellwood said, is the relatively complex procedure that involves stripping out the nitrogen that accompanies Russian-provided fuel to arrive for ATV at the launch site. ATV will be docking to the Russian end of the station and must comply with Russian ways of doing business in space. It’s one of many examples of culture clash that confront space station managers.
Beyond the five ATV vehicles planned, ESA and NASA have opened talks on whether an additional ATV might be contracted to propel the station on a controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its service life.
One of ATV’s principal functions on each of its missions will be to raise the station’s orbit, which degrades because of contact with residual atmosphere at its orbiting altitude of 320 to 350 kilometers.
The space station partners – NASA, Russia’s Roskosmos, ESA, Japan’s Jaxa space agency and the Canadian Space Agency – have not yet determined how long the station will operate once its assembly is completed by 2010 – the year the U.S. space shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired.
It also remains unclear whether additional ATVs will be needed at the station. With a payload capacity of about 9,500 kilograms, ATV is three times the size of Russia’s Progress vehicle and about one-third larger than Japan’s HTV space tug, now in development. In addition to these vehicles, NASA has contracted with commercial companies to provide services to the station in the post-shuttle era.
Ellwood said ESA has no objection to selling ATV capacity once its own needs and its debt to NASA and Russia have been settled. The agency has contracted for nine ATV launches with the commercial launch consortium, even though it currently has no firm plans to use all nine reservations.