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Europe's ATV Ready for Journey to French Guiana Launch Site

NOORDWIJK,Netherlands -- After three years of tests, Europe?s Automated Transfer Vehicle(ATV), an unmanned space tug, is scheduled to begin a two-week journey to itsFrench Guiana launch site for a 16- to 18-week-long launch preparationcampaign.

Thevehicle, along with up to 881,849 pounds (400,000 kilograms) ofequipment, is scheduled to leave the European Space Agency?s (ESA) Estectechnology center here July 13 for Rotterdam, where it will be loaded onto aship for the ocean voyage to the Guiana Space Center, on South America?snortheast coast. Departure from Rotterdam is scheduled to take place July 17,followed by arrival at the launch base on July 29.

The ATVcurrently is scheduled to be launched, aboard a specially designed Ariane 5rocket, to the International Space Station in January, where it will dock aftera series of tightly controlled approaches.

Theinaugural ATV, calledJules Verne, will be the first of a scheduled five ATV vehicles that Europewill send to the space station in the coming years to pay its share of stationoperating costs.

ESA hasspent about 1.3 billion euros ($1.76 billion) building and testing ATV and itscontrol center, a figure that also includes its Ariane 5 launch.

JohnEllwood, ESA?s ATV program manager, said the agency expects to spend around 325million euros ($442 million dollars) to build and launch each of the fourfollow-on vehicles to be built by a large contracting team led by Astrium SpaceTransportation.

If launchedas scheduled in January, the ATV would arrive at the orbital complex severalweeks after Europe?s Columbus habitablelaboratory, which is scheduled to be launched by a U.S. space shuttle inDecember.

ESADirector-General Jean-Jacques Dordain has said he would prefer ATV to launchbefore Columbus ? a way of signaling ESA?s ability to pay for itsstation-related resources in kind before its major station component, Columbus,arrives to begin using those resources.

But duringbriefings at ESA?s ESTEC technology center here June 28, agency officialsdismissed this as a non-issue, saying their relations with NASA, the station?sprime contractor, are sufficiently friendly and flexible to permit even asubstantial time lapse between Columbus? arrival and the start of ATV serviceto the station.

AlanThirkettle, ESA?s space station program manager, said ESA?s obligations to NASAare to provide 44,092 pounds (20,000 kilograms) of ATV-delivered payloadto the station in the form of water, fuel and other gear for the station?sastronauts.

Once ESA?sown payload demands are accounted for, that 20,000-kilogram debt to NASA ? andan estimated 1,763 pounds (800 kilograms) of payload owed to Russia ? iscovered by four additional ATVs beyond the first one.

In thestation?s early development, ESA and NASA had roughly calculated that akilogram of payload delivered to the station should be valued at about 16,149euros ($22,000). Thirkettle said this figure no longer means much as theagencies have moved to a pure barter relationship. ESA?s 20,000-kilogram debtis expected to be paid by 2015, Thirkettle said.

Dordain hassaid that ATV?s arrival at the Guiana Space Center will be such a drain on thespaceport?s resources ? also used to maintain a particularly busycommercial-launch schedule this year ? that everyone involved will be motivatedto complete the work as quickly as possible.

Ellwoodsaid the launch campaign as currently planned would make it possible for aDecember launch, but that the earlier date would leave insufficient margin forglitches, should they occur.

Oneexample, Ellwood said, is the relatively complex procedure that involvesstripping out the nitrogen that accompanies Russian-provided fuel to arrive forATV at the launch site. ATV will be docking to the Russian end of the stationand must comply with Russian ways of doing business in space. It?s one of manyexamples of culture clash that confront space station managers.

Beyond thefive ATV vehicles planned, ESA and NASA have opened talks on whether anadditional ATV might be contracted to propel the station on a controlledre-entry into the Earth?s atmosphere at the end of its service life.

One ofATV?s principal functions on each of its missions will be to raise thestation?s orbit, which degrades because of contact with residual atmosphere atits orbiting altitude of 320 to 350 kilometers.

The spacestation partners ? NASA, Russia?s Roskosmos, ESA, Japan?s JAXA space agency andthe Canadian Space Agency ? have not yet determined how long the station willoperate once its assembly is completed by 2010 ? the year the U.S. spaceshuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired.

It alsoremains unclear whether additional ATVs will be needed at the station. With apayload capacity of about 20,943 pounds (9,500 kilograms), ATV is threetimes the size of Russia?s Progress vehicle and about one-third larger thanJapan?s HTV space tug, now in development. In addition to these vehicles, NASAhas contracted with commercial companies to provide services to the station inthe post-shuttle era.

Ellwoodsaid ESA has no objection to selling ATV capacity once its own needs and itsdebt to NASA and Russia have been settled. The agency has contracted for nineATV launches with the Arianespace commercial launch consortium, even though itcurrently has no firm plans to use all nine reservations.

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Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi

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