EADS has just announced that its Astrium division has designed a variation of Europe's new space station freighter, known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), to make a crew ship capable of carrying three people. Sourya Biswas reports
The European Space Agency (ESA) may have had a flourishing business in satellite launching using its Ariane series of rockets, but does not currently possess its own human space transportation system and is reliant on the Americans and the Russians to get its people into orbit.
All that may soon change if European firm European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company's (EADS) plan to build a passenger-carrying variant of its space station freighter comes to fruition.
EADS, which also makes the passenger airplane Airbus and the military helicopter Eurocopter, has just announced that its Astrium division has designed a variation of Europe's new space station freighter, known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), to make a crew ship capable of carrying three people.
Limited details were released in Bremen, Germany, on Tuesday; further information and a mock-up are expected at the Berlin Air Show this month.
This is not the first time that the ESA has proposed to build an orbital vehicle. Back in the 1980s France, a member of the ESA, had pressed for an independent European manned launch vehicle. Around 1978 it was decided to pursue a reusable spacecraft model and starting in November 1987 a project to create a mini-shuttle by the name of Hermes was introduced.
The craft itself was modelled comparable to the first proposals of the Space Shuttle and consisted of a small reusable spaceship that would carry 3 to 5 astronauts and 3 to 4 metric tons of payload for scientific experiments.
With a total maximum weight of 21 metric tons it would have been launched on the Ariane 5 rocket, which was being developed at that time. It was planned solely for use in Low-Earth orbit space flights. The planning and pre-development phase concluded in 1991; however, the production phase was never fully implemented because at that time the political landscape had changed significantly.
With the fall of the Soviet Union ESA looked forward to cooperation with Russia to build a next-generation human space vehicle. Thus the Hermes programme was cancelled in 1995 after about $3 billion had been spent.
Now, EADS Astrium and the German Space Agency (DLR) have put ideas forward to realise this dream of launching an astronaut in space and successfully bringing him back. They propose to adapt the sophisticated navigation, rendezvous and docking technologies in the ATV, which recently ferried just under five tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station in April.
It also has a pressurized section that is "human rated" in the sense that, once docked to the 340km-high station, astronauts can move around inside it safely in casual wear. However, the ATV was not built with the intention of transporting humans across space, and a fit-for-purpose capsule would have to be developed to take the place of the current cargo section.
In addition, the freighter is a use-once-and-throw-away vehicle. Consequently, it has no capacity to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere intact. Heat-shield technology would therefore also need to be developed for the capsule, to help it survive the immense temperatures experienced when falling to Earth.
Astrium senior executive Evert Dudok and DLR boss Johann-Dietrich Worner were confident on the feasibility of the project and its possible realisation without spending billions of euros. They envisage a version ready for unmanned testing by 2013, with the first manned flight four or five years later.
The concept announced has not yet been put formally to European partners who would need to support the venture if it were to proceed under the aegis of ESA. The next biennial meeting of European space ministers, when such major decisions are taken, will take place in November in The Hague.
The ESA established in 1974, is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 17 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of close to 2,000 with an annual budget of about €2.9 billion in 2007.
ESA's main spaceport is the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, a site made available by France. It is close to the equator; hence commercially important orbits are easier to access. ESA became the market leader in commercial space launches in the 1990s. In recent years, ESA has also established itself as a major player in space exploration.
ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, and the European Astronaut Centre (EAC), that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany.
The following table shows the composition of the ESA and the different monetary contributions and stakes of the different members.
|Member states ||Mandatorycontrol ||Optional control ||Total Contributions (€ Million.) ||Total (%) |
| France ||15.63% ||31.55% ||778.8 ||27.97%|
|Germany ||23.41% ||21.45% ||614.8 ||22.08%|
| Italy ||12.88% ||14.59% ||397.9 ||14.29%|
|United Kingdom ||16.93% ||5.91% ||239.3 ||8.59%|
|Belgium ||2.83% ||7.37% ||167.4 ||6.34%|
|Spain ||6.87% ||5.76% ||169.0 ||6.07%|
|Switzerland ||3.40% ||3.49% ||97.3 ||3.49%|
|Netherlands ||4.43% ||2.87% ||90.9 ||3.26%|
|Sweden ||2.61% ||2.11% ||62.5 ||2.25%|
|Austria ||2.26% ||0.87% ||33.7 ||1.21%|
|Norway ||1.70% ||1.02% ||33.2 ||1.19%|
|Denmark ||1.82% ||0.78% ||28.8 ||1.03%|
|Finland ||1.37% ||0.54% ||20.7 ||0.74%|
|Ireland ||0.95% ||0.30% ||12.8 ||0.46%|
|Portugal ||1.40% ||0.21% ||12.7 ||0.45%|
|Greece ||1.50% ||0.12% ||12.5 ||0.43%|
|Luxembourg ||0.21% ||0.13% ||4.2 ||0.15%|
|1.Note that 5 per cent of ESA's budget comes from third party sources, e.g. Canada|