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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) have teamed up again, this time to send a crew of astronauts to Mars. Orion, the first interplanetary manned mission on NASA’s agenda, will have a distinct European flavor as ESA has been contracted to provide the service module for the spacecraft. Orion’s service module has several functions, including energy provisions through solar arrays, controlling heat, and providing propulsion for the craft. It will also store life support essentials such as oxygen, water and nitrogen.
Initially ESA has been contracted to supply one service module. This module will be placed on the unmanned test flight initially planned for 2017. ESA expects the service module to cost several hundred million dollars. The module requires safety measures to carry astronauts into space, with the initial manned flight scheduled to lift off sometime in 2021.
ESA has contracted Airbus Defense and Space to develop and build the service module for the Orion project. The 390 million euro agreement was signed recently in Berlin. Orion is Europe’s initial involvement in a NASA sponsored manned exploratory mission. Airbus will use its design of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which was used to supply the International Space Station, as a basis for the Orion service module. ATV has successfully completed five supply missions to the space station.
As the second largest defense and space supplier globally, Airbus Defense and Space is a division of Airbus Group that also includes Airbus DS Communications, formerly Cassidian, and Airbus Military and Astrium. With annual revenues of 14 billion euros annually, it is the home of approximately 40 thousand employees.
International collaborations do, however, have its difficulties. Among these issues are the export restrictions for technology, known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. ESA, however, does not believe it will be a major issue since Orion is a U.S. project and components used to manufacture the European built service module will be primarily European.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the primary U.S. contractor, helped design Orion’s original service module with NASA. ESA’s contribution is already making an impact since Lockheed’s fan style solar panels have been replaced by European developed solar arrays. These arrays will be utilized in its initial test flight in 2017.
ESA’s funding meeting for the Orion service module included a 16 million euro contribution by the United Kingdom Space Agency. This funding will source Orion’s propulsion and communications technology. ESA is organized in such a way that each country can contribute equipment to be utilized at the system and subsystem level.
ATV rocket engines will be used for the service module by ESA as the major propulsion system. The module will also include the orbital rocket maneuvering system utilized by the space shuttle program. NASA manned spaceflight benchmarks will be incorporated and its testing facilities will be used when there are none available in Europe.
With Orion’s first scheduled test flight on Dec. 4, NASA’s first planned mission to send astronauts to Mars will move from the planning drawing board to the operational field trial stage. With a major contract to ESA of the service module, Orion is truly an international endeavor with interplanetary objectives.
By Hans Benes
Image courtesy of NASA/Ben Smegelsky