Space: Orbital Supply Ships Proliferate


January 25, 2011: Japan launched its second Kounotori (White Stork) HTV  [VIDEO] orbital delivery vehicle on January 22nd. Carried into LEO (low earth orbit of about 400 kilometers up) by a Japanese H-IIB launcher, the HTV carries 5.3 tons of supplies to the ISS (International Space Station.) With the U.S. space shuttle going out of business soon, and Russia the only other nation with a regular space delivery system, Japan stepped in to help keep the ISS supplied. HTV will remain docked to the ISS for two months, so that it can be used for some experiments. But eventually, the HTV will be filled with discarded material from the ISS, and launched towards earth, to burn up on reentry. Japan is considering upgrading the HTV to carry personnel and be able to return (like the Russian Soyuz space vehicles) with people, and be reused after refurbishment. The 10.5 ton cylindrical HTV is 10 meters (31 feet) long and four meters in diameter. It is equipped with maneuvering rockets, plus a guidance system and communications gear. Max carrying capacity is six tons.

The Space Shuttle is 56 meters long, weighs 2,000 tons and has a payload of 24 tons. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed the unmanned ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) spacecraft for supplying the ISS. The ATV may replace the existing Russian Soyuz and Progress systems, especially if ESA and Russia can work out a cooperation deal. The Progress is actually a variant of the Soyuz, and both weigh about seven tons. These two space vehicles are used one time only, and were designed in the 1960s. The Progress can deliver 2.7 tons of cargo.

The ATV is a 20 ton vehicle, which can carry 8 tons of cargo. The ATV had its first flight in 2008, and a second one goes up next month. A joint Russian/ESA ATV would do the same work as the smaller, and older, Russian Progress vehicle. But the current ATV is not equipped to return material from space (where is will mainly be used to supply the International Space Station.) A reusable ATV would cost about a billion dollars to design, and one that could carry passengers, a few billion more.

The U.S. is developing a reusable capsule, the 25 ton Orion, that can carry up to six personnel, or up to 3.5 tons of cargo (six tons in s special cargo version). The Orion can land, via parachute and airbags, anywhere, and be refurbished for up to ten trips. However, the Orion won’t be ready for use until 2015.

Currently, Russia builds two Soyuz and four Progress capsules a year. For the 4-5 year period when there is no Shuttle or Orion, Russia will build four Soyuz and seven Progress capsules a year. Russian/European ATV craft may show up later this decade.

The Orion is based on the American Apollo space capsule of the 1960s, which was a contemporary of the Soyuz. The three remaining U.S. Space Shuttles will be retired this year, leaving it to Russia to provide transportation to and from the International Space Station until Orion arrives to help out. There are also some more commercial efforts to build supply craft, like the Dragon.


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