The European Space Agency's ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) robotic resupply ship may live on beyond its last planned mission to the International Space Station in 2014 - by funnelling technology into a service module for the Orion manned capsule being developed for NASA astronauts or even a free-flying habitat.
ESA has contracted EADS's Astrium division to study both avenues for further uses of technology developed for the ATV. ATV is ESA's contribution to the "barter" system with NASA and its other ISS partners that keeps the station flying, and the agency sees further development of the vehicle's unique capabilities as possibly its best route to maintaining its end of this inter-agency bargain.
Concepts, including cost and schedule outlines, will be presented in November to the agency's key meeting of member state ministers, who will hammer out ESA's budget and priorities for the next few years. ATV-derived projects will be high on the agenda.
Michael Menking, head of orbital systems and space exploration at Astrium, says a service module for Orion will not be ready in 2014, when the four-person capsule, being developed by Lockheed Martin, is expected to make a maiden test flight.
But, he says, ATV's own service module - with propulsion systems for main thrust and in-orbit manoeuvres, along with avionics that include the craft's unique capability to dock with the ISS in fully automatic mode - is regarded as an ideal basis for an Orion service module.
ATV also features a pressurised cargo hold to deliver almost 7t of food, water, supplies, hardware and fuel to the space station, so it is not difficult to leap to the concept of using it as a starting point to develop spacecraft such as supply ships for orbital infrastructure assembly or servicing, debris clearance or even free-flying orbiting habitats.
Menking stresses that the objective is to develop the most versatile spacecraft possible, with the key question: "How far can we go?"
Since the retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle fleet last year, ATV has been the largest craft servicing the space station. Astrium's €13 million ($16.2 million) study contract also calls on it to examine technologies featured on ESA's 21t Columbus laboratory module, launched to the ISS in 2008.