Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Europe's new space truck takes shape



He knows the near-flawless maiden voyage of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) last year does not mean the second flight is guaranteed to turn out the same way. Attention to detail is everything.

The follow-up ship - dubbed Johannes Kepler - is in the process of being assembled.

Its propulsion and avionics units are being prepared in Bremen, Germany. Its pressurised module which will hold the cargo - air, water, scientific equipment, food, and clothing - to be taken to the space station is being built in Turin, Italy.

The various segments should come together in September, into a single line of assembly that will lead to a launch in November 2010.

Thereafter, ATVs will fly every year for three years. The vehicle is no longer an experimental spacecraft; it is a production spacecraft. And to emphasise the point, if you walk through the cleanroom at EADS Astrium in Bremen, you can already see ATV-3 components.

"The whole integration process, from the first day until launch, is 28 months. So if you want to launch every 12 months, obviously you have to produce in parallel," explained Esa's Mr Dettmann.

The space freighter has huge significance for Europe.

On one level, it is the "subscription" Europe must pay to be part of the International Space Station "club". If Europe can deliver about six tonnes of supplies a year to the platform, it is guaranteed six-month residencies at the ISS for its astronauts.

But ATV has also been a test of European competency. It is the biggest, most sophisticated vehicle the bloc has ever flown in space. Its automatic rendezvous and docking technology allows it to find its own way to the station and attach itself without any human intervention.

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Full article here ...