Europe has demonstrated its capability and willingness to provide essential logistics support to the ISS though the first flight of the Automated Transfer Vehicle. The highly successful Jules Verne mission has demonstrated several new technologies and capabilities that can be used and adapted in the future for developing new spacecraft, such as automatic rendezvous between flying spacecraft, crucial for future human planetary exploration, complex space infrastructure assembly and robotic sample-return missions.
In doing so, Europe has significantly expanded upon its previous achievements, which have secured its autonomous access to space and a prominent role in cooperation with other space-faring nations. The ISS is the most visible example of such cooperative endeavours, but other initiatives are being considered in the field of exploration, in which ESA Member States have strong interests.
The ISS also provides a timely testbed of technologies and programmatics for the future implementation of global exploration initiatives. An appropriate exploitation of its capabilities appears therefore as the first natural step towards securing a future European role in the context of exploration, on the basis of its demonstrated technologies.
With the Space Shuttle retirement announced by NASA, it is necessary to reconsider essential aspects of ISS exploitation on the basis of the traffic models enabled by the available or planned transportation means to and from low orbit. Notably, the ISS partners will be deprived of the capability to return conditioned payloads and equipment to Earth (including samples resulting from ISS experiments).
With this ISS logistic situation, the significant European space transportation background (patiently built through decades of activities) provides the opportunity to deploy an operational system.
Cargo reentry capsule
The ATV currently has a capability to resupply the ISS with up to 7.5 tonnes of propellants and cargo, and is the largest orbiting space vehicle after the US Space Shuttle. In the new scenario the pressurised Integrated Cargo Carrier would be replaced by a cargo reentry capsule, equipped with a heatshield and able to bring back hundreds of kilograms of cargo and valuable experiments. Such a project, named the Advanced Reentry Vehicle (ARV), would use heritage from the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator (ARD), which flew in 1998, as well as the work done in the definition of past space transportation system concepts.
Finally, the possible future development of a crew transportation system hinges on extensive preliminary testing though the successful execution of several automated flights. The ISS provides a natural operational frame for conducting such flights.