Transatlantic effort progresses Orion crew vehicle

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The development of a key component in any future manned mission to deep space has taken a leap forward, after the European Space Agency’s approval of the design for the service module it will supply for NASA’s Orion crew capsule.

Orion – formally the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle – is being readied to take astronauts to beyond low-Earth orbit from the early 2020s. The Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft will rely on the ESA module for propulsion, power supply and life support for missions to the Moon and asteroids – or even Mars from around 2035, if current NASA planning holds.

Airbus Defence & Space is adapting its Automated Transfer Vehicle robotic supply ship for the project. As with the ATV – which has become the biggest spacecraft flying following the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet – provision of the Orion service module is a large chunk of ESA’s contribution to the international barter arrangements that make up the International Space Station’s running costs. The fifth and final ATV mission to the ISS will launch via Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s French Guiana spaceport in July, carrying some 6.5t of supplies and fuel.

Orion and its service module are scheduled for an unmanned maiden flight in 2017 to one of the Lagrange points – a position in orbit where the Earth and Moon’s gravity balance out, allowing a spacecraft to hold station easily. A second, manned flight could follow in 2021 or 2022.

The ATV-Orion project marks ESA’s first significant foray into hardware for manned missions. However, much depends on the readiness of Orion’s rocket – NASA’s massive Space Launch System. With its initial version intended to lift 70t to low-Earth orbit and later versions to heft 130t, the rocket will be the most powerful ever built. NASA says it expects core stage testing to begin in late 2016.

However, SLS has long been a focal point of political controversy in Washington. SLS was conceived after the Obama administration cancelled the George W Bush-era Constellation return-to-the-Moon programme, and has been called a “rocket to nowhere”.

Critics have taken aim at its cost – possibly $500 million per launch – and its reliance on derivatives of Space Shuttle motors, an architecture that locks out competitive rival designs. SpaceX, whose relatively low cost Falcon 9 rockets have already shaken up the launch market, has stated its intention of developing a Mars-capable rocket, but any prospective NASA backing would likely be consumed by the SLS programme.