Europe signs on to NASA's manned Orion venture
The ESA and Airbus have signed a contract that will see the aerospace giant build the "back end" of America's new manned spaceship. The US intends to use its Orion capsule to send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. The vehicle needs a propulsion unit to push it through space and to carry the humans' air and water.
European industry has been tasked with constructing this "service module" for an initial test flight in late 2017. The hope, however, is that this will become a long-term relationship in which every Orion mission is supported by Esa/Airbus hardware.
Officials from the European Space Agency and the manufacturer signed the contract, valued at 390 million euros (£310m/$490m), in Berlin, witnessed by representatives from the German federal government, the German space agency, Nasa and US industry.
The design for the service module borrows heavily from the unmanned cargo truck Europe has been running to the space station in recent years called the Automated Transfer Vehicle.
At one time, Europe thought of adapting the truck into a human transportation system of its own, but baulked at the costs. Nonetheless, the performance and reliability of the ATV has made it an ideal template for Orion's service module.