Airbus Defence and Space

The only capability which Europe is lacking in the field of manned spaceflight is that of transporting astronauts to and from space. The experience have gained on Columbus and ATV, as well as on atmospheric re-entry systems (ARD), means that Europe is ideally placed to look at delivering its own means of carrying astronauts into space. In the same way that the Ariane 5 ensures independent access to space, Europe should also ensure its independence in the sphere of manned spaceflight.

Background to the study

This independence is related to access to the International Space Station (ISS) and the Columbus space lab, as well as to future manned missions to the moon.

Europe could then present itself as an equal partner on international programmes. The ATV Evolution study is also a good fit with the future plans of the three major European space agencies: DLR in Germany, CNES in France and ASI in Italy. All three agencies proposed that, in the supply of the ISS, the European Space Agency (ESA) should also research the possibility of returning goods from the ISS to Earth. Such a space freighter would be a clear first step giving credence to the development of ATV Evolution. Its operation would also contribute to flight qualification of a future manned system.

The ATV Evolution study was intended to examine whether a mission of this kind would be within the realms of possibility for Europe to successfully achieve.

Initial results of the study

From a technical and a technological point of view, both stages of the ATV Evolution are entirely feasible. Columbus has given experience of living conditions in space, and ATV of flight control, rendez-vous and docking, with the development of innovative technologies in both these fields. In recent years ARD and Huygens have also successfully proven re-entry technology.

The study therefore recognises that Europe already possesses the most critical technical aspects prerequisite for the development of a manned spaceflight system. This is clearly a much more financially viable situation to be in than if launcher and vehicle had to be developed from scratch.

Development could take place in several steps. First of all, ensuring that the ATV is capable of bringing cargo back from space – currently the de-docked ATV burns up in the atmosphere. This is a logical step because after the decommissioning of the US shuttles, returning cargo to Earth will only be possible with the Soyuz capsule, and limited to a few kilos.

Initially therefore, an Earth-return capsule would be developed and tested with an adapted ATV service module. All development expenditure should also be of direct benefit for later steps, since the size and concept of this capsule would be equivalent to a later manned capsule. An initial demonstration flight of the evolved, ATV-based transportation system is foreseeable for the unmanned cargo transporter in 2013/2014. As for the launcher side, an unmodified Ariane 5 ES-ATV could be considered, as its capability has already been demonstrated with the launch of the first Jules Verne ATV.

A transfer capsule for three astronauts, including a crew and capsule rescue system, would then be developed as a second step. Experience gained from operating the freight version in-orbit would directly flow into qualification of the manned version. The Ariane 5 ES-ATV could again be considered here – as long as it were fitted with a suitable sensor system which would enable autonomous activation of the rescue system in case of problems. A first flight of an independent European manned space capsule is therefore conceivable around 2017/2018.

Turning the study into reality …

As with all space projects, a decision as to whether the ATV should be further developed, or whether studies on the subject should be initiated, is ultimately a political one. It is down to the national space agencies is to pave the way for such decisions, and then implement them. Aerospace industry then designs and builds launchers and transporters under contract to the agencies. Airbus Defence and Space’s ATV Evolution study should therefore be seen as a serious proposal based on practically oriented experience, addressing the question of the ATV’s further development and Europe’s aerospace capabilities.