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Europe, Japan Weigh Cargo Return from Space Station

TheEuropean and Japanese space agencies areconsidering upgrades to outfit their robotic space station servicingspacecraftto return cargo to Earth, potentially laying the groundwork for crewedcapsulesby the 2020s.

Officialsexpect decisionson the newspacecraft by next year.

Neitherspace agency has started developmentof a pilotedspaceship, but both organizations have started designingre-entry vehiclesthat would bring supplies back to Earth. The ability to return cargofrom thespace station -- down-mass in space-speak -- will be severely curtailedoncethe space shuttle is retired next year.

Theorganizations are studying concepts toupdate the Automated Transfer Vehicle and H-2 Transfer Vehicle forroundtrip journeysto the InternationalSpace Station.

Bothre-entry vehicles could debut by the endof this decade, giving the agencies a roundtrip transportation systemcapableof shepherding pressurized cargo, possibly including plants and smallanimals.

Afterdelivering supplies and preciousconsumables, station residents currently load the ATV and HTV withtrash fordisposal as the craft burns up during re-entry.

TheEuropean Space Agency awarded a contractto EADS Astrium in July 2009 for an 18-month study of an AdvancedRe-entry Vehicle. Worth 21 million euros, or $27 million atcontemporaryexchange rates, the contract covers Astrium analysis and studies of abeefed upcapsule with a heat shield that could survive a fiery return to Earthand landin the ocean.

Astriumis the lead contractor on the ATV.

Engineersare scheduled to finish the18-month Phase A study near the end of 2010, according to Simonetta DiPippo,the director of ESA's human spaceflight programs.

"WhatI would like to do is to put onthe table the Phase B approval at the end of this year," Di Pippo toldSpaceflight Now.

Thenext phase of the project would fund amore detailed definition of the spacecraft's requirements andcapabilities,building the foundation for formal design work to begin in about 2012.

Thetimetable hinges on the continued supportof ESA member states at the next Ministerial Council meeting in late2011, whenthe agency plans to propose full development of the ARV, Di Pippo saidThursday.

Memberstates approved the ARV studies in thelast Ministerial Council in 2008. A severe financial and currencycrisis hassince forced many European governments to apply austerity measures,althoughspace spending has not yet been significantly curtailed.

DiPippo said thefirst launch of the ARV cargo carrier is planned for 2017 or 2018,slightlylater than last year's announced target of 2016.

TheJapan Aerospace Exploration Agency isrefining concepts for a recoverableHTV that could be launched as soon as 2016.

Ina presentation to the Japanesegovernment's Space Activities Commission earlier this month, officialsoutlinedthree designs for the HTV-R spacecraft.

Japanhas studied the development of a modestcapsule to return a small cache of cargo to Earth. But officials favormoreambitious concepts of larger re-entry vehicles with broad applications.

Onealternative is based on a8.5-foot-diameter capsule to demonstrate a more substantial returncapacity ofmore than 600 pounds. Engineers have also sketched a 13.1-foot-wide,12.5-foot-tall cone-shaped craft that could transport more than 3,500poundsback to Earth, plus it is better equipped to eventually carryastronauts.

JAXAsays it need to start more advanceddevelopment of the HTV-R system in 2011 to launch the first spacecraftin themid-2010s.

Ifapproved, the international re-entryvehicles would join the SpaceXDragon capsule to assume a slice of the cargo return capacityof the spaceshuttle. SpaceX says the Dragon spacecraft will start roundtrip spacestationflights next year.

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Stephen Clark

Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at (opens in new tab) and on Twitter (opens in new tab).