European aerospace giant Airbus will build a critical sub-system for Nasa's deep space spacecraft Orion

Airbus to build propulsion unit for Nasa's interplanetary spacecraft

European aerospace giant Airbus will build a service module for Nasa’s Orion spacecraft – the first time a European contractor will take part in America’s cutting-edge space ventures.

The project, in negotiations since 2012, has been officially sealed today with a €390m contract between Airbus and the European Space Agency (Esa), which will be coordinating the work with Nasa.

The news comes as Nasa readies a test version of Orion for its maiden space flight next month.

The Airbus-manufactured service module, primarily a power and propulsion system, will be based on technology developed by Esa and its partners during the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) programme.

“This follow-on contract is a mark of confidence in our expertise as well as in our ability to deliver reliable state-of-the-art space systems on time and within budget,” said François Auque, head of Space Systems at Airbus.

“In the wake of the ATV’s outstanding five flawless missions to the International Space Station (ISS), this programme is yet another example of the important role that Europe plays globally in the field of human space flight.”

Between 2008 and 2014, Esa built five ATVs – fully automated cargo transfer vehicles – to supply the ISS. The final one, Georges Lemaître, is still docked at the orbital outpost and scheduled for departure in February next year.

The ATV-derived Orion service module will provide support for the crew module from launch throughout the duration of the space flight and will only detach itself prior to atmospheric re-entry.

Apart from propelling the spacecraft during its orbital journey, the service module will also allow precise attitude control and enable the crew to abort the mission even at very high altitudes in case of unexpected and dangerous circumstances.

When mated with the crew module, the service unit will help ensure the astronauts have their basic biological needs met, contributing to the revitalisation of air inside the capsule and recycling water. The capsule will also help monitor and adjust temperature of the space vehicle’s sub-systems and components and generate electricity.

Nasa and Esa have been in talks to use an ATV-derived technology for Orion since 2012. Esa has approved the system design for the service module in May this year ahead of the construction of the first hardware.

With Nasa aiming to send Orion on its first unmanned mission to space in 2017 or 2018, Airbus has to work on a rather tight schedule, presenting detailed design and delivering test hardware in only one year.

The 2017/2018 unmanned mission will attempt to reach one of the so-called Lagrangian points around the Moon to test the spacecraft ahead of a human mission and achieve qualification for Nasa’s new Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built.

Orion is hoped to enable a manned deep-space exploration mission to the Moon and beyond during the 2020s.

The main Orion capsule is being built for Nasa by US aerospace corporation Lockheed Martin.

Last week, Nasa transported a test version of Orion to the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as it’s preparing for the first Orion unmanned test space flight to take place on 4 December.

During the trial, Orion will be carried to space atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, reaching an altitude of about 6,000km from Earth.

“This is the next step on our journey to Mars, and it’s a big one,” said William Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“In less than a month, Orion will travel farther than any spacecraft built for humans has been in more than 40 years. That’s a huge milestone for Nasa, and for all of us who want to see humans go to deep space.”

The spacecraft, which includes the crew and service modules, launch abort system and the adapter that will connect it to the rocket, was completed in October and has since been awaiting its rollout inside the Launch Abort System Facility at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Once it arrived at Space Launch Complex 37, Orion was hoisted up about 200ft and placed atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket that will carry it into orbit. Over the course of the three weeks that remain until lift-off, the spacecraft will be fully connected to the rocket and powered on for final testing and preparations.

“We’ve put a lot of work into designing, building and testing the spacecraft to get it to this point and I couldn’t be prouder of the whole team,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “Now it’s time to see how it flies. Sending Orion into space will give us data that is going to be critical to improving the spacecraft’s design before we go to an asteroid and Mars.”

Orion’s maiden journey on 4 December is expected to last four and half hours and allow the engineers to test the vehicle's critical safety systems including heat shield, parachutes, avionics and attitude control. 

After reaching the 6,000km distance, Orion will return to Earth, hurtling through the atmosphere at more than 32,000km/h. During the fiery descent the temperature on the surface of the capsule’s shield is expected to reach more than 2,000ºC.

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