Science & Environment

Esa boss confident agency will join US Orion project

Image caption The Apollo-like crew vehicle is designed primarily for travel beyond low-Earth orbit

The head of the European Space Agency has said he is confident member states will elect to participate in the US manned Orion spacecraft.

The Esa chief, Jean-Jacques Dordain, was speaking at a space conference recently held in Naples, Italy.

The technology would only be used for one test flight in 2017 that has no crew.

It will be part of Orion's service module, which provides propulsion, life support and other functions.

The European technology would be developed from Esa's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo spacecraft.

This vehicle will have supplied the International Space Station (ISS) five times by 2014, in return for Europe's use of the ISS until 2015.

Image caption Mr Dordain said member states will have to make a decision in November

The Orion module technology will pay for Europe's ISS access until 2020. Europe's Orion participation is expected to be agreed by Esa's member states at a budget meeting in Caserta, Italy on 20-21 November.

Speaking at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held in Naples, Italy on 1 October, Esa director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain said of the service module proposal: "I think the members will choose this."

He added that his member states have to decide this November to finance the Orion service module technology because of Orion's 2017 mission deadline.

For this service module, Esa will have to develop propulsion technology deemed safe enough for propelling a crewed spacecraft - something the agency has never done. The cost to Esa of this work to meet its ISS obligations to 2020 is expected to be several hundred million euros.

Bernardo Patti is head of Esa's ISS programme and exploration department within the agency's directorate of human spaceflight. He told BBC News: "Esa, in order to offset its post ATV 5 obligations, builds the service module for the first mission of the [Orion], an unmanned mission that is scheduled for the end of 2017."

Other options

He added that the majority of the service module's hardware will be European, including the rocket engine, but there was no agreement for continued European production beyond the 2017 mission.

The service module provides propulsion, avionics, power generation with its solar arrays, vehicle thermal control and the storage of consumables, such as water, oxygen and nitrogen for life support and rocket engine fuel. Nasa declined to comment on Esa's involvement with its new manned spacecraft because there is no "formal agreement".

The company developing Orion for the US space agency, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, deferred enquiries to Nasa. Lockheed has been developing Orion ever since it won the contract in 2006.

Image caption The ATV secures Esa's use of the space station until 2015

Then Orion was part of President George Bush's Constellation programme that would return America to the Moon by 2020. For Orion, Lockheed has already developed the service module's circular solar arrays that are unfolded and deployed once the spacecraft is in orbit.

Orion is for exploration and beyond Earth orbit missions. Nasa is working with companies to develop astronaut taxis to go to the ISS, Orion is not expected to fulfil this role. The 2017 Orion launch will be the second unmanned flight for the spaceship but the first time it is orbited by Nasa's proposed heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

The first unmanned launch is in 2014 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket. The 2017 flight is called Exploration Mission 1. The second SLS mission, Exploration Mission 2, is targeted for 2021 and will launch Orion with a crew of up to four US astronauts.

During an IAC presentation Lockheed's exploration architect Josh Hopkins, who works with the company's Orion team, told his audience that Europe would provide the rocket engine and assemble the service module. Hopkins told the BBC that if the Esa member states miss the November deadline for the service module they could opt for the habitation module the spacecraft's crew needs.

Under President Barack Obama's exploration plans in the 2020s and 2030s astronauts will fly around the Moon's far side, go beyond the Moon and back to Earth, visit a near Earth asteroid, and eventually fly to Mars and back.

For these long duration missions, the astronauts would stay onboard Orion for a lot longer, continuously, than planned under the Constellation programme.

So, Orion needs a habitation module that astronauts can live in for several weeks or more. Hopkins pointed out that technologies from ATV and Europe's ISS Columbus laboratory would be suitable for the habitation module.

But Patti told the BBC that his agency was not discussing a habitation module. The European agency had considered developing its ATV into a manned spacecraft but its member countries would not foot the bill.

Europe will have launched five ATVs by 2015, the original end date for the ISS. The fourth ATV, dubbed "Albert Einstein", will be despatched to the launch site in August for a lift-off in Spring next year. The fifth and final ATV, called "Georges Lemaitre," will be launched in 2014.

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