The European Space Agency (ESA) has awarded a €650 million contract to Airbus Defence and Space for the construction of three additional European Service Modules for Orion, the United States next-generation crew spacecraft.
As its contribution to NASA’s push to return humankind to the Moon, ESA has been tasked with producing the service module for the agency’s Orion spacecraft. The service module acts as the propulsion for the spacecraft as well as providing a range of other critical functions.
On January 2, ESA awarded a contract to Airbus Defence and Space for the construction of three more Orion service modules. Airbus is currently under contract to produce the first three Orion service modules which will be utilized for NASA’s first three Artemis missions, the third of which will be the first to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface.
The first Orion service module produced by Airbus has already been delivered to NASA for the agency’s Artemis 1 mission, which is expected to be launched later this year. The second is nearing completion and the third is, according to Airbus, in the early stages of integration.
The Orion service module is part of Europe’s contribution to the Artemis program and its lunar Gateway space station. The continent’s contributions have already secured it three seats aboard Orion flights although it is currently unclear which missions will feature European astronauts.
Space shuttle legacy hardware
After being awarded the €650 million follow-on contract, Airbus is now under contract to produce a total of six Orion service modules. Once the sixth is complete and delivered, the service module’s propulsion system will need to be revised.
Currently, the European-built Orion service module utilizes Space Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines. The OMS engines were designed by Aerojet in the 1970s and served aboard every space shuttle mission from STS-1 to STS-135.
According to ESA, there are currently only six such flight-worthy engines in existence. Once this supply is exhausted, a new propulsion system will need to be found. NASA is currently exploring options.
The use of space shuttle legacy hardware is a theme of NASA’s Artemis program. The agency’s SLS rocket, which will carry the Orion spacecraft to orbit, for instance, utilizes four of the space shuttle’s RS-25 main engines, and two upgraded space shuttle solid rocket boosters.