Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The European Space Agency’s ATV: A Billion - Dollar Trash Bag?

Slated to replace the aging American Space Shuttle fleet by 2010, is the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle nothing more than a multi billion–dollar garbage bin?

By: Vanessa Uy

The European Space Agency’s latest contribution to the International Space Station program is an unmanned spacecraft that would serve as a re-supply vehicle for the orbiting ISS. Named after the visionary 19th Century French Science Fiction author the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle will serve as a replacement for both of the aging spacecraft assigned in re-supplying the International Space Station. Namely the American space shuttle fleet and the Russian unmanned Progress re-supply spacecraft that hails back to when there was still a Soviet Union.

The ATV was totally developed in house by the European Space Agency. To keep the development costs under two billion dollars, the E.S.A. designed the Jules Verne ATV to be burned up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. When completed, it will be launched by a modified Arianne Rocket / Launch Vehicle from the Korou Spaceport in French Guyana to the International Space Station. The equatorial position / location of the launch site is primarily due to the fuel savings that can be incurred by harnessing the speed of our planet’s rotation to help boost space vehicles to favorable orbits.

As the Jules Verne ATV enters into service, supplies from the Earth destined to the ISS will be loaded to it. Since the ATV is fully automated to dock with the ISS using proprietary GPS and laser based technology developed in-house by ESA, the ATV will thus be able to perform its intended mission with minimal or no human intervention at all. After the scientists / astronauts maintaining the ISS receive their supplies, wastes, expendable flotsam, and other used material from the ISS will be loaded into the Jules Verne ATV. Then the unmanned spacecraft will be sent on a trajectory to burn-up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

By allowing the “Jules Verne ATV” to burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere once it’s usefulness is over seems – to me at least – an utter waste of a quite expensive technology. Representatives of the European Space Agency says that to make the Jules Verne ATV reusable would incur excessively expensive development costs and the spacecraft would become prohibitively expensive to regularly operate. But in my opinion, the E.S.A. ’s decision to burn-up the spacecraft after its mission is completed is but a symptom of some country’s resentment against the West. Since Western nations / entities like the E.S.A. - the sole space ferrying entities on this planet – choose to make the Jules Verne ATV “expendable”. This only reinforces the nagging notion in my head that these Western Powers think that astronauts doing an emergency landing in “unfriendly territories” like Iran, North Korea, or Taliban-controlled territories in Afghanistan is deemed “unthinkable” by “Western Powers”. And they – the non-aligned nations like Iran - are concerned about the increasing “militarization” of space?