ESA goes back to the future with a space freighter... yes again

Repeat performance will be able to return to Earth and might one day carry crew

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to return to the International Space Station (ISS) cargo delivery business by 2028, judging by announcements made at ESA Space Summit in Seville.

Lurking within worthy announcements concerning the use of space to pursue climate research and action was the launch of a competition between European companies to develop a freighter that can both deliver cargo to the ISS and return it to Earth. The decision comes ahead of the next Ministerial ESA Council meeting in 2025, and the hope is that by announcing the decision this week, the ambitious 2028 goal will be met.

Readers would be forgiven for a distinct sense of déjà vu. After all, Europe already had an ISS freighter in the form of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which could loft considerably more to the orbiting laboratory than the Russian Progress equivalent. It was an uncrewed vehicle, and featured an automated docking process - thus dispensing with the need for crew to capture the spacecraft with the station's robot arm - and five of them were launched between 2008 and 2015.

Following the ATV's retirement, the technology was repurposed for use by NASA's Artemis program. The European Service Module (ESM) carries lessons learned from the ATV program and, like the ATV, represents ESA's contribution to NASA's ISS and now Artemis programs.

The ATV was, however, expendable - nothing could be returned aboard the freighter. This contrasts with the considerable down-mass on offer from the Space Shuttle. The SpaceX Dragon freighter can also return some cargo, and a few kilos can be brought back on crew transport vehicles.

In its announcement, ESA speculated that the cargo vehicle could be adapted to transport crew and might eventually serve other destinations. Useful, because even if the 2028 goal is met, the ISS will unlikely remain operational for more than a few years by that point. We could, therefore, imagine the vehicle being repurposed for trips to the Lunar Gateway station, currently being led by NASA.

ESA said "the Ariane 6 and Vega-C launchers will soon guarantee European access to space".

As a reminder, the Vega-C is currently grounded following an anomaly, and the Ariane 6 has yet to make its maiden flight, despite its workhorse predecessor, the Ariana 5, being recently retired.

In its announcement, ESA said public funding for the initial stages of the project had already been secure, although private contributions were being sought through the competition. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which resulted in SpaceX's Dragon freighter and Orbital Science's Cygnus debuting a decade ago.

COTS was announced in 2006, but it wasn't until 2012 before SpaceX managed a rendezvous with the ISS. ESA will be fervently hoping that its commercial transportation will be accomplished considerably more quickly. ®

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