UK steps up, as ESA commit to ATV Service Module on NASA’s Orion

by Chris Bergin

The European Space Agency (ESA) have announced they will inform NASA they are ready to build an ATV derived Service Module for Orion, to be ready for the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017. The announcement came after the UK stepped up with additional funding, marking the country’s first real human BEO commitment.ESA and Orion:

Wednesday’s announcement didn’t come as a major surprise, with the notion of ESA involvement – via the use of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) hardware on Orion – known within NASA for over a year. However, the confirmation is nothing short of historic.

Ever since Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Bill Gersteinmaier told the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) that the ATV could transfer from ISS resupply ops into the Orion role, NASA teams have been looking into the marriage of the ESA vehicle and Orion’s exploration plans.

“Met with HEOMD AA/W. Gersteinmaier and the Director, Exploration Systems Development (ESD) on MPCV strategy,” noted one example of the memos flying around the Orion program last year (L2). “Talking with ESA about potential future partnerships. ESA in for discussions on possible collaborations based on ATV technology.

“(Orion manager) Mark Geyer and MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) are serious about getting ESA to build the Orion Service Module.”

The ATV – three times the size of the Russian Progress resupply vehicle – was built with a human rating role in mind from the onset. However, these originally ranged from a mini space station – involving the mating of two or more ATVs, through to a crewed version of the Cargo Ascent and Return Vehicle (CARV) variant of the ATV.

Now, ATV – pending the expected official NASA acceptance – has a second life after it completes its role as a resupply vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS), incidentally linked to ESA’s involvement with the orbital outpost.

The confirmation came via the two-day Council meeting at ministerial level in Naples, Italy. Ministers from ESA’s 20 member states and Canada allocated 10 billion Euros for ESA’s space activities and programmes for the years to come.

This included a green light for Europe to provide the Service Module for Orion as an in-kind contribution for ISS operations for 2017-20.

This decision is classed as strategically important for Europe as it will enable a cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future human space transportation system of SLS and Orion.

The deal came as the UK government upped its commitment to ESA, with a specific 20 million Euro boost towards the development of ATV’s role as Orion’s Service Module, effectively advancing the UK – embedded in ESA’s overall association – into NASA’s Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) ambitions.

It was was sanctioned by David Willetts, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science – under the approval of UK Chancellor George Osborne, the second most powerful man in the UK’s Conservative-led coalition government.

It is believed that the UK’s total funding commitment for ESA over the next few years – which now also includes micro-G research on the ISS – is now over the one billion Euro mark.

(ATV-3 Docking Animation created from 70 hi res ATV-3 docking images acquired by L2 – LINK).

This increase in UK involvement is a major coup for the country’s space flight aspirations, given it was the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher that butchered what was a blossoming space flight industry during her time as Prime Minister.

Now, ESA – with large involvement from its traditionally strong supporters such as Germany, France and to an increasing level, the UK – are fully onboard with joining NASA’s exploration program, one that begins in 2017 with SLS-1.

Otherwise know as Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1), the 70mt Block 1 SLS will feature a kick stage – or Interim Cryogenic Propulsion System (ICPS) from the Delta IV, mated to the Orion, itself will be married with the ATV Service Module, with the Spacecraft and Payload Adapter and Fairing being topped off by a Launch Abort System (LAS).

The ICPS will perform the burns to both raise the perigee to 100x975nmi and to depart towards the Moon. Orion will perform the Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs) on both the inbound and outbound legs, via the ATV Service Module.

The 6-10 day mission, utilizing a gross lift-off mass of 33.4 tons, will end when Orion re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 36,750 feet per second.

EM-2 is currently on the books for Orion’s second trip to the Moon, this time with a crew of up to four astronauts. Its Design Reference Mission (DRM) classification is CLO (Crewed Lunar Orbit), given the astronauts will spend three to four days orbiting our closest neighbor.

Notably, NASA’s exploration plan is far from solidified, with numerous options currently under evaluation. These include a cargo-based SLS mission in 2019, and the potential for an Exploration Gateway to be the key architecture for potential missions to the surface of the Moon, along with the current primary targets of a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA), Mars or its moons.

However, with ESA’s firm involvement, Orion finds itself in a similar position of the ISS in terms of funding considerations, with the international arrangements adding a level of protection. Although it is important to remember the ATV/Orion deal’s confirmation remains subject of approval from the United States government.

(Images: Via L2 content, ESA and NASA)

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