LONDON — The European Space Agency has some ambitious resolutions for the New Year. The year 2013 will include the agency’s first spaceflight for its newest class of astronauts, the launch of its latest robot cargo ship Albert Einstein, and the development of new rockets and spacecraft, including a reusable space plane and work on NASA’s new Orion capsule.
January and February should see agreements and contracts signed for the new rockets, Ariane 5 Mid-Life Evolution (ME) and Ariane 6, and for ESA’s participation in NASA’sOrion space capsule. ESA is providing the service module for the Orion capsule, which NASA plans to use to fly astronauts on future deep-space missions.
With deadlines in 2014 for the rocket work, and 2017 for an unmanned Orion test flight, ESA officials know 2013 will see lots of activity right from the start.
“The Orion service module funding has been approved, so now the usual work process starts. I think [the NASA-ESA agreement signing] is in January. It should be rather early from what I’ve heard, it is something to be done towards the beginning of the year,” Franco Bonacina, spokesman for ESA’s director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told SPACE.com. [Meet the European Space Agency (Video)]
Powerhouse for NASA’s Orion
ESA will provide one service module for Orion’s 2017 test launch. The module’s preliminary design review, or PDR, is planned for July 2013. The PDR is a major milestone for spaceflight projects, allowing managers to check a spacecraft's design progress.
The ESA service module’s previous review, the system design review, occurred in September 2012, and the next major design review is not until 2015. The service module will provide propulsion, avionics, heat control and energy from solar arrays. It will also store water, oxygen and nitrogen for life support.
ESA’s Orion module is being delivered as an in-kind contribution for International Space Station (ISS) operations, for the period 2017 to 2020. The module is expected to cost ESA several hundred million dollars.
Europe’s new rockets
Before the Orion work shifts into gear, a pair of two-year studies is due to begin at the start of 2013 for the agency’s Ariane 5ME and Ariane 6 rockets. This is so ESA can make a decision about the future of its launchers in late 2014.
Operated by the company Arianespace, the workhorse Ariane 5 rocket launches ESA missions and commercial satellites. The rocket launches from the South American territory of French Guiana and is able to launch two spacecraft at a time. It first flew in 1997 and can launch up to 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) into orbit.
The new Ariane 5 version, the Ariane 5ME, has already been in development for many years and it had been planned to be operational from 2016. It will be the same height, excluding the nose cone, and weight as its predecessor, but will be able launch an additional 2,540 pounds (1152 kg) of payload, with a maximum payload of 24,640 pounds (11,176 kg) for geostationary orbits.
The Ariane 5ME will use a new upper stage and rocket engine, the Vinci, and has a larger nose cone. If approved in 2014, the Ariane 5ME could be operational towards the end of this decade.
However, ESA has concluded that it needs a simpler rocket that can launch more frequently with only one payload onboard. This is the planned Ariane 6, which was originally called Next Generation Launcher (NGL).