Europe and US confirm plans for Orion astronaut spacecraft

The US and Europe have agreed to work together on the American’s next-generation capsule system. With its first flight due to take place in 2017 the Orion vehicle is to be designed to take humans beyond Earth to both the moon and mars. Europe has agreed to provide the vehicle with the technology to enable it to propel itself through space. A legal framework document covering the work has just been signed.

While the Orion vehicle will be tested in 2017, the demonstration will be unmanned. All being well the vehicle will go around the back of the Moon before returning to Earth, a crew will look to repeat the feat in about 2021.

Europe will be providing the service module for Orion. It will sit directly behind the capsule and provide the propulsion, power and temperature control, as well as holding supplies of water and air.

Thomas Reiter, the director of human spaceflight and operations at the European Space Agency (Esa) speaking to the BBC said that the agreement represented a new page in transatlantic co-operation. “This is the first time that Esa is involved in the critical path for a human transportation system. It is a fantastic perspective for the future, taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit to new destinations for exploration.”

Europe will build the prototype module for 2017 and a number of components that would be needed for the second vehicle in 2021, although a formal go-ahead to complete this additional model has yet to be agreed.

The Orion service model is to be based on Europe’s robotic freighter known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which is currently used to supply the international space station. Work is well advanced because feasibility studies have already considered how the ATV could be adapted into a crew vehicle.

One aspect of the service module’s production is the role that might be given to UK industry. Last year Britain offered, during discussions at the Esa Ministerial Council, to put £16m into the cost of the vehicle that helped ease the project towards approval. Under Esa rules, the UK could see a return on this investment.

Esa is set to sign a formal contract with Astrium (Bremen, Germany) to lead the production of the service module.

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