ROME — After commercial interests pushed its launch into next year, Europe’s next orbital cargo freighter will attempt to reach the International Space Station in a narrow docking window in February, pushing back the final planned space shuttle flight by one day, officials said this week. NASA is delaying the final planned space shuttle launch by a day to give the Automated Transfer Vehicle a chance to dock with the space station Feb. 26. The robotic spaceship is due to blast off Feb. 15. The shuttle Endeavour’s mission is now scheduled to launch Feb. 27, one day later than previously announced. Endeavour will reach the complex March 1 and depart March 9. Russia agreed to study its Soyuz launch and landing forecasts for March, which could conflict with the shuttle or ATV operations if they are further delayed. Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, which launches in January, is expected to leave the station around Feb. 24.
Officials prefer to have the station host one major operation at a time, meaning no overlaps between arrivals and departures of U.S., Russian, European or Japanese visiting vehicles. The partners negotiated the manifest changes at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague this week.
The second ATV, nicknamed Johannes Kepler, was being readied to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in December. Arianespace opted to slide another communications satellite flight into late December to fulfill its commercial obligations.
The Feb. 26 docking window is the best opportunity for the ATV to reach the outpost until at least April, when a more lengthy opening is expected in the crowded traffic pattern around the station, according to NASA officials.
The ATV’s service module ready to be mated with the integrated cargo carrier. Credit: ESA
Simonetta Di Pippo, the European Space Agency’s leading human spaceflight official, said this week the second ATV would have been ready to launch in December from a technical perspective.
Since the delay, the space agency has returned many of its ATV engineers to Europe from the Ariane launch base in Kourou, French Guiana. Technicans already finished packing most of the capsule’s dry cargo, including food.
“We would really like to launch in February,” Di Pippo said.
Officials are racing to launch the ATV in time to accomplish a significant reboost of the space station in March or April. European resupply ships are capable of the largest orbit-raising maneuvers required by the station.
The unique Ariane 5 launcher configuration needed to launch ATVs necessitate more time between rocket missions at the Guiana Space Center. It normally takes nearly eight weeks to transition from a launch of a commercial Ariane 5 rocket with a cryogenic upper stage and the ATV version of the launcher, which uses a second stage burning storable propellants.
The turnaround time will prompt a hectic pace in Kourou early next year to meet the ATV’s constrained docking window.