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Europe's ATV technology will drive NASA's Orion spacecraft

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jan 18, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—NASA has given a fresh and ringing endorsement of the European Space Agency's revolutionary ATV cargo truck by choosing its technology to drive the new Orion spacecraft.

The vehicle's advanced and intelligent electronics systems will be used for a service module that will be attached right under the new American capsule on missions into orbit, to the Moon and even eventually to Mars.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been a spectacular success since the first, named Jules Verne, was launched in 2008 to carry supplies to the International Space Station.

Three ATV spacecraft have made a similar trip so far with a fourth, Albert Einstein, due to blast off atop an Ariane 5 rocket next month from Kourou, French Guiana.

Each mission so far has demonstrated well the cargo ship's ability to perform an unaided docking with the ISS. Astronauts were said to love it because it is roomier than the old Apollo command module and gave them extra space.

But using it as a spare room for the orbiting outpost was the closest that the ISS crews would get to flying it. Despite its advanced features, which can also be used to boost the space station's orbit or steer it out of harm's way if space debris threatens, the ATV is not designed for manned spaceflight. Indeed, once it undocks from the space station, filled with unwanted rubbish, it is destroyed in a fiery re-entry.

At the time of of the first successful ATV launch, the then NASA administrator Mike Griffin remarked: "It occurs to me that it's a fairly short step to go from the ATV to something that can carry crew. It's only a short step from there to an independent European manned spaceflight capability."

ESA ministers have been considering a proposal by spacecraft builder EADS Astrium and the German Space Agency (the DLR) to develop a new version of the ATV that would carry three crew and return them safely to Earth.

Edoardo Almadi leaves the ISSThe third ATV, Edoardo Amaldi, is pictured departing from the ISS in October last year. Credit: NASA

The agreement just signed between ESA and NASA to adapt the ATV for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is being heralded as a continuation of the spirit of cooperation that helped build the ISS.

The new service module will provide propulsion, power and thermal control, as well as supplying water and air to the astronauts in Orion's crew compartment.

Orion is due to fly for the first time in 2014, though the first mission will be an unmanned test flight atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket that will carry it 3,600 miles (about 5,800 km) into space.

That will be followed later in the year by Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight test, again uncrewed, with both the Orion spacecraft and NASA’s new Space Launch System. That will be followed by Exploration Mission-2, which will launch Orion and a crew of four astronauts on a space mission.

Nico Dettmann, head of ATV's production programme, said: "ATV has proven itself on three flawless missions to the Space Station and this agreement is further confirmation that Europe is building advanced, dependable spacecraft."

And Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development said: "It is a testament to the engineering progress made to date that we are ready to begin integrating designs of an ESA-built service module with Orion."