NASA has signed an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the latter to supply service modules for NASA’s Orion manned spacecraft, due to launch in 2017. The modules will use technology from ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) currently ferrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and will provide propulsion, power and life support to the Orion module.

Orion, originally designed as NASA’s replacement for the Space Shuttle, is intended for cislunar (between Earth and the Moon) and other missions in deep space, as commercial carriers take over freight and passenger duty for the ISS. The Orion capsule is an enlarged and advanced version of the Apollo Command Module and, like the Command Module, it needs a service module in order to function for more than a limited time. On its own, the Orion can only sustain itself during the period of reentry in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of a mission.

Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft with service module (Image: NASA)

The ESA service module will be based on the solar-powered ATV, which has already clocked up three unmanned cargo missions to the ISS since 2008. It also acts as a booster for changing the station’s orbit, and as a handy means of rubbish disposal when it burns up in the atmosphere.

Though unmanned, the ATV is already man-rated because ESA had planned to build a version to carry astronauts. Man-rated means that the operational parameters of the ATV are set so that a crew could ride in it safely. Scheduled for a total of five ISS visits before the program ends, the idea of using it as a service module for Orion has been under consideration since 2011.

Artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft during the 2014 test flight (Image: NASA)

The first test flight for Orion will occur in 2014 when it will be launched atop a Delta IV rocket and sent 3,600 miles (5,800 km) into space before reentering the atmosphere at 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h). The first mission for Orion is scheduled for 2017 when it will be sent unmanned by NASA’s Space Launch System on a circumlunar mission similar to that of Apollo 8 in 1968.

When it returns, it will hit the earth’s atmosphere at 11 km/s (24,600 mph, 39,600 km/h) – the fastest reentry ever. This is important, because Orion is intended for cislunar and more distant missions that will require much faster reentry speeds than returning low Earth orbit missions. A second mission to orbit the Moon, which will carry a crew, is also planned for 2021, but permission for this has yet to be granted.

Astrium of Bremen, Germany is expected to build the modules and they will be paid for in barter as NASA accepts the modules to offset the costs of ESA using the ISS.

The video below is a NASA animation of Orion’s first mission, released as part of the announcement of the ESA agreement.

Source: ESA