Europe's ATV Gearing Up for Launch Later this Year

LES MUREAUX, France -- Europe?sAutomated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is scheduled to be shipped by boat to the Guiana Space Center launch site in July in preparation for a November launch to theInternational Space Station, program managers said.

The ATV,whose current cost is estimated at about 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion), willbe part of a shipment of some 50 crates weighing 300,000 kilograms to be loadedonto the Toucan transport ship in Rotterdam, Netherlands for the 12-day voyageto the French Guiana spaceport, according to ATV program managers at AstriumSpace Transportation, located here.

In May 24briefings on the program?s status, Astrium Space Transportation officialsexpressed cautious optimism that the ATV?s Functional Simulation Facility isnearing final qualification. This facility, which is located here, simulatesall phases of the ATV mission as the unmanned, 19,400-kilogram vehicleapproaches the station, stops or backs off if ordered, and then docks softlyenough to avoid any threat to the station?s astronauts.

?We have aschedule of about 61 tests on this facility that need to be performed with thecustomer [the European Space Agency] and we have completed 57 of them,? saidNicolas Chamussy, ATV program manager at Astrium Space Transportation. He saidthe remaining tests were not the most demanding.

Even so,Chamussy said the company is maintaining the double work shift on theFunctional Simulation Facility; teams work nonstop between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m.,he said. A final series of tests at the European Space Agency (ESA) Estectechnology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, will be run in the coming weeksbefore the maiden-flight ATV model, called Jules Verne, is made ready fortransport to the launch site. Jules Verne has been at the Estec center forabout three years.

But as haslong been the case with ATV?perhaps the most complicated piece of hardwareever built in Europe?the schedule depends in part on events occurringelsewhere in the international space station program and with ATV?s Ariane 5launch vehicle.

Amanufacturing glitch in the GPS navigation receiver being built in Russia has delayed the receiver?s placement on the international space station?s Russianmodule, where ATV will dock. The receiver is scheduled to be installed on thestation?s exterior during an astronaut spacewalk before the ATV launch.

Thespecially designed Ariane 5 rocket?the Ariane 5 ES?will place the ATV into a260 kilometer orbit inclined at 51.6 degrees relative to the equator. While ithas been declared fit for service, an Ariane 5 in the ATV configuration hasnever flown.

Inparticular, its restartable upper-stage engine, has not been flown. This stagemust be ignited three times during the mission, with the last burn designed totake the Ariane 5 upper stage out of the ATV?s orbit?the orbit used for allvehicles flying to and from the station.

Acommercial Ariane 5 mission scheduled for September will test a similar upperstage, called the Ariane 5 GS variant, restarting it after it has delivered itstwo commercial telecommunications satellites to their assigned drop-offlocation in geostationary-transfer orbit.

AstriumSpace Transportation and ESA do not decide alone on ATV. Because of the dangersinherent in having such a large vehicle navigate toward the space station, NASAand the Russian Space Agency also must sign off on ATV?s readiness to beginservice. The ATV flight will be managed from Toulouse, France, where a dedicated facility has been built, but NASA?s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Russia?s mission control center outside Moscow also will have a say in ATV?sfinal approach to the international space station.

Inaddition, NASA?s White Sands, N.M., facility that manages the tracking anddata-relay satellites and ESA?s Redu, Belgium, center that manages ESA?sArtemis data-relay satellite?both satellite systems will be used to maintaincontact with the station and ATV?are part of ATV?s elaborate communicationsloop.

ATV isbeing developed as a way for the European Space Agency to supply services tothe space station partnership instead of having to pay cash for Europe?s pro rata share of the annual utility costs incurred by NASA in managing thestation and its activities. Under current plans, four additional ATVs will belaunched to fulfill Europe?s obligations for station maintenance.

AstriumSpace Transportation has an adjustable contract with ESA to provide sixadditional ATVs?if needed?for a total price of about 800 million euros. ATVmanagers also are hopeful of winning contracts from NASA in the period that isscheduled to begin with the U.S. space shuttle?s retirement in 2010 through2015 when a new vehicle is set to enter service. The Russian Progress vehicle,with about one-third ATV?s capacity, will continue to service the station, and Japan?s HTV vehicle, which resembles the ATV but is smaller, also will be available duringthat same? period.

Inaddition, NASA has awarded development contracts to two U.S. companies to provide station cargo services under a program called Commercial OrbitalTransportation Services.

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at