PARIS The second model of Europe's automated space station cargo carrier will not be launched until February 2011 at the earliest, rather than in December as planned, in what European government and industry officials said Sept. 21 is a classic conflict between commercial and government customers that use the same rocket.
The decision to delay the launch of the second 20,000-kilogram Automated Transfer Vehicle to the International Space Station will require the 18-nation European Space Agency to negotiate with NASA and the other space station partners on a suitable backup launch date.
These negotiations may not be easy, government and industry officials said.
NASA has planned the launch of a U.S. space shuttle for February the next time the station's orbit is aligned correctly for an ATV launch. Having both ATV and the shuttle scheduled to arrive at the station in the same period is viewed as less than ideal, these officials said. [ Gallery: Shuttle Discovery's last launch pad trip.]
"We will sit down with our partners as we have done for more than 10 years now and we will find a solution," ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said in a Sept. 21 interview, referring to ESA's proposed February ATV-2 launch date. "These problems are resolved through compromise and negotiations."
Europe's ATV cargo ships are unmanned spacecraft the size of a London double-decker bus. They can carry up to 7.7 tons of cargo to the space station and are expendable. At the end of their missions, they are commanded to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
The first ATV craft, ATV Jules Verne, launched to the space station in 2008. This second vehicle is called the ATV Johannes Kepler. A third vehicle, named after Italian space pioneer Edoardo Amaldi, is in development.
Regrettable space delay
Simonetta di Pippo, ESA's space station director, said she regretted the delay but was nonetheless proud of the ATV-2 team's ability to keep the vehicle's assembly and launch preparations on schedule for the past 18 months.
In a Sept. 21 interview, di Pippo said any delay from a December launch will be due to factors unrelated to the ATV-2's readiness. Vehicle preparations at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana are consistent with a December launch date, she said.
Dordain agreed, saying ESA had established an independent board of inquiry, headed by the ESA inspector-general, to assess the vehicle's readiness. Dordain said that review concluded that ATV-2 could make the December date.
Commercial customers waiting
On the other side of the ATV-2 debate is the Arianespace commercial-launch consortium of Evry, France, which is struggling to make up for time lost earlier this year when its operations were suspended to correct a defect in the helium-pressurization system of the Ariane 5 vehicle. Operations were delayed more recently to accommodate the late arrival of a commercial satellite requiring a last-minute parts replacement.
The result is that Arianespace, which had planned to begin its 2010 mission year in February or March, was obliged to wait until May for the year's first launch. The company had hoped to conduct seven Ariane 5 missions in 2010, equaling a record set in 2009, but now will be able to conduct six at most.
It has now scheduled launches, each carrying two commercial telecommunications spacecraft, for late October, late November and late December.
In a Sept. 21 interview, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said inserting the ATV-2 flight into the 2010 manifest would have meant scrapping all three commercial launches now planned between October and December because of the special requirements of an ATV flight.
Rocket under review
The Ariane 5 ES model that will place the ATV-2 into low Earth orbit uses a special upper stage that requires major preparation at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, especially since this stage failed in a 2001 mission.
That failure resulted in a series of stage-preparation procedures that Le Gall said cannot be compromised. The procedures block most launch-base activity for the eight weeks preceding the launch of ATV.
"Many of us remember that launch and I can tell you we are not cutting corners on the preparation of this stage," Le Gall said. "We cannot handle other payloads at the launcher-preparation facility during the eight weeks leading up to an ATV launch. That would mean no further operations for us starting in late October if we were to launch ATV-2 in December."
The convention that spells out relations between Arianespace, the French space agency (CNES) and ESA includes a stipulation that government launches be given a preference in the event of a conflict with commercial launches. This has rarely occurred with Arianespace, in part because, unlike the launch manifest for the U.S. Atlas 5 rocket, Arianespace has relatively few government satellites to launch in a given year.
Dordain said the decision on how to juggle government and commercial flights is made collectively based on a common-sense assessment of the tradeoffs.
"Yes, our convention with Arianespace does make reference to a 'preference' for government launches," Dordain said. "But that does not mean I can ask Arianespace to violate commercial contractual obligations. I can't tell Arianespace to never mind its commercial customers, any more than I can tell our space station partners to never mind the imperatives of space station traffic management."
While NASA's space station managers may have to struggle to fit the ATV-2 launch into the schedule for February given what else is expected at the station at that time, they have an extra incentive: ATV, in addition to its cargo-carrying duties, is needed to reboost the station into its operational orbit. Such a reboost is required sometime between February and April, di Pippo said.
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