Second ATV Carrier Docks at International Space Station
UPDATED at 3:33 pm EDT
TOULOUSE, France — Europe’s ATV-2 cargo carrier on Feb. 24 docked automatically to the international space station in the second of a planned five ATV missions that together will pay Europe’s share of station operating costs through mid-2017.
The 20,000-kilogram ATV-2, named Johannes Kepler, will stay docked at the station delivering fuel and supplies, and re-boosting the station to a higher altitude, until mid-June under current plans.
Depending on the overall management of traffic at the station, it may stay until mid-August before being filled with garbage and destroyed on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere over the south Pacific Ocean.
The vehicle, which aside from the U.S. space shuttle is the largest-capacity freighter that visits the orbital outpost, was launched Feb. 16 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.
The 18-nation European Space Agency () developed the ATV program to pay NASA, the space station’s general contractor, for Europe’s share of the station’s common operating costs.
Until late 2010, the ESA-NASA space station agreement called for ESA to develop five ATVs — the first was launched in 2008 — that would be launched every 18 months or so and would cover Europe’s station-maintenance obligations until 2015.
Following negotiations in October 2010, the two agencies agreed that the four remaining ATVs, modified to carry more fuel and supplies, would be launched to the station about once a year through 2014. Because of the higher payload capacity and faster launch tempo, the two sides agreed that with these missions, ESA could offset its station-maintenance charges through 2017.
NASA and the other station partners have agreed to extend the station’s life to at least 2020, with ESA governments expected to formalize their commitment at a March 16-17 meeting of ESA’s ruling council.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said ESA and NASA are now negotiating how Europe might pay its station charges between mid-2017 and 2020 or the end of the station’s life.
Briefing reporters here Feb. 24 at the ATV Control Center, located at a facility owned by the French space agency, CNES, Dordain said NASA has indicated it does not need further ATV vehicles beyond the fifth one now planned for launch in 2014.
With the support of the German government, ESA had floated the idea of an ATV that would be modified to be able to return hardware to Earth instead of burning up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
But in recent months, several ESA governments said they could not take part in the billion-dollar investment that the Advanced Reentry Vehicle would require.
Dordain said the ARV would also cost ESA far more than the estimated value of its debt to NASA for future station operations.
Dordain said ESA and NASA are now discussing another vehicle that they would co-develop, with ESA’s share, at least at the outset, not exceeding what it must pay NASA for station use in any event.
Dordain said the future vehicle should take at least some advantage of Europe’s work on ATV so that this expertise is not lost. Furthermore, he said, the NASA-ESA vehicle should have applications beyond the space station to serve longer-term U.S. and European space exploration plans, which are still being formulated.
Dordain noted that the ATV’s service module — the portion of the vehicle that provides the propulsion — is currently the only vehicle in operation that can be attached to the station and de-orbit the facility at the end of its life. Because of that, he said, “if we and NASA can agree that the vehicle we develop includes elements of the ATV service module, that would be good.”