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Europe's first transport ship developed for the manned space program could not actually carry people, however it did give the continent's future astronauts their biggest hope for entering space onboard their own vehicle. Conceived in the 1980's, the Ariane Transfer Vehicle, ATV, sported many features of a piloted ship and, potentially, could leave a technical heritage for human space flight. European space officials also stressed the importance of the ATV's highly sophistcated docking system for future deep-space missions, such as soil sample return from Mars, which by 2008 had emerged as a potential goal of the European Space Agency.

Future prospects

The successful development of the ATV spacecraft brought Europe ever closer to possession of its own manned transport spacecraft. The most critical element still missing from the multifaceted business of human space flight remained a descent module, capable of taking the crew through the fiery atmospheric reentry and achieving soft landing. Europe hoped to address that with an atmospheric reentry demonstrator, or ARD.

ATV evolution scenarios

With a mass of around 21 tonnes at launch and up to 9 tonnes of onboard propellants and payload, the Automated Transfer Vehicle is the largest orbiting space vehicle besides the US Space Shuttle.

The ATV is unique in combining both the full automatic capabilities of an unmanned vehicle able to rendezvous and dock on its own, and the human spacecraft safety requirements when it is docked to the ISS. Its 48-cubic-meter pressurised cabin section represents the internal volume of a mid-size bus.

The Space Shuttle will retire and will be out of service in 2010. Cargo return to Earth will be limited to only a few kilos using the Russian Soyuz capsules. The ATV is an excellent basis for developing a wide variety of new space vehicles whose evolution can go from simple to complex projects.

Study 1

Within the General Study Programme, which began in early 2004, ESA is looking at the feasibility of three scenarios:

A Large Cargo Return Spacecraft with a thermo re-entry shield, where the pressurised Integrated Cargo Carrier would be replaced by a large cargo re-entry capsule able to bring back hundreds of kilograms of cargo and valuable experiments. Such project could use the flight-proven concept of the Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator, ARD, which flew successfully in 1998.

A Crew Transport Vehicle, CTV, which would require more complex modifications. The Integrated Cargo Carrier would be transformed into a manned re-entry capsule for crew transportation, which could be used, in a first phase, as a crew rescue vehicle, CRV, for the ISS, and then as a full up-and-down crew transport vehicle launched by Ariane-5. Such ATV evolution would give Europe the capabilities of human transportation into low Earth orbit.

Unpressurised Logistics Carrier, UIC, which could bring up to the Station several tonnes of unpressurised equipment. These payloads will be transported on a dedicated carrier which could replace the Integrated Cargo Carrier on the current ATV. The unpressurised equipment would be transferred to its final location with the ISS robotic arm or by spacewalk.

Study 2

A second and more detailed study, called the CARV, or Cargo Return Vehicle began in autumn 2004. The main objectives of the new vehicle would be to dock to the US segment of the ISS to allow for exchange of standard racks of the Station.

Other evolutions and modifications are also under general consideration:

The safe-haven/free-flying lab

The ATV could easily evolve towards an unmanned free-flying laboratory providing a better microgravity level than the ISS. It could periodically dock to the ISS for major servicing support.

Such a free flying pressurised spaceship could also be used as a safe haven for an entire ISS crew in case of a major emergency on-board the Station. That would give time for a crew to survive until they are rescued by a space shuttle or a Soyuz vehicle.

Small payload return

By taking advantage of internal available volume, the core of the ATV could be equipped with a small ejectable capsule able to return a cargo payload of about 150 kg to Earth at the end of its mission. This concept would be useful to bring back valuable scientific and technological experiment samples.

Mini Space Station, MSS

To build a mini space station, the ATV spaceships could be equipped with two docking mechanisms, one in front and one at the back, in such manner that they could mate like the carriages of a train.

Exploration Transport Vehicle, ETV

If required in future programmes, the ATV could also evolve to be used as a transfer vehicle carrying tonnes of supplies to the Moon and Mars orbits including space telescopes and planetary spacecraft.

Source: ESA; Last update: March 19, 2008

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 6, 2008

All rights reserved



ATV mod1

One possible upgrade of the ATV ship would feature an aft docking port with a transfer tunnel, which would enable docking of the Progress cargo ship to the station, without first undocking the ATV. Click to enlarge. Credit ESA

ATV followon

A follow-on version of the ATV spacecraft (right) is shown docked to the International Space Station, along with a European-built rescue vehicle (left). Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA


Artist rendering of a reported concept, which would "marry" the propulsion section of the European ATV cargo ship with a Russian-built reentry vehicle. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2006 Anatoly Zak