Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Even Off Planet Haulage And Freight Shipments Can Be Mundane

European Space Freighter Takes Out the Trash
Shipping News Feature

EARTH ATMOSPHERE – Yesterday a ship named the Johannes Kepler was scuttled, an unusual act for any vessel, but this time, far from sinking in some watery pit, the vessel, one of the Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV) designed to ship freight off planet, was deliberately burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere after completing one of the most exotic haulage operations yet undertaken. The ATV nearly met an unplanned end two hours after starting her journey however when she had to dodge space debris passing within a mere fifty metres.

Regular readers will know there is nothing we like more than a cutting edge technology story relevant to the logistics industry but the death of the Johannes Kepler, named for the German scientific genius of a type the 17th Century threw up with regularity, is the final act in what is fast becoming an almost normal freight forwarding project. The one and only voyage of the ship was apparently flawless, apart from that debris incident, which showed both how subtly the ships engines can be used in an emergency and just how much junk is now flying around in low earth orbit.

The ship, grossing at around twenty tonnes including its seven tonne payload, originally launched in February to resupply the international space station (ISS) which has been present in some form orbiting the planet since 1998. Food and water and vital supplies were all successfully delivered before the ATV was employed to shove the station into its highest ever orbit, around 385 kilometres above the Earth, to ensure its longevity.

Unlike the space shuttle, unmanned ATV’s are designed to burn up on re-entry, commanded to ‘tumble’ as they enter the atmosphere to ensure almost complete destruction, hence the Johannes Kepler’s planned demise, but even this phase of her short life is purposeful, the vessel carried almost a tonne and a half of refuse from the station to a spectacular end as it burnt up over the South Pacific leaving a plume of fire in its wake.

Voyages of this type represent more than a simple ‘fire and forget’ style of freight forwarding. The intention of the European Space Agency (ESA) is to liaise with NASA with a view to extending the role of ATV’s as a somewhat stagnated space program gears up in the coming years. Less than a month ago NASA announced plans to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a deep space ship capable of landing astronauts on a passing asteroid with a view to an eventual Mars mission.

ESA see a possible role for their ATV’s as the supply vessels to assist in assembling an possible interplanetary base for MPCV’s and are planning to launch a sister ship to the recently sacrificed vessel next February with two further flights in the next two years. Resupplying the ISS is Europe’s contribution to the project and, despite huge potential costs, the ESA will be keen to join the US effort to make the first move off planet.

Photo:  the Johannes Kepler docks with the ISS 24th February 2011 - Courtesy of ESA