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Parallel to Orion

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Plans are underway to build a European alternative to the US's shuttle replacement Orion.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has convened a series of meetings with key industrial groups in Europe to thrash out the details of new passenger launch systems.

Russia will lead the feasibility study of various Crew Space Transportation Systems (CSTS), while Japan is also reported to be keen to be involved.

Daniel Sacotte, the ESA's director of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration told the BBC that the move was not about beating the US, or being isolationist.

"We want to have parallel systems, to be cooperative; so that if one system has a failure, there is another one that allows space exploration to continue," he said. "We cannot rely on only one [transportation system]."

The form the new launch system will take is still undecided. This decision will be the focal point of the meetings. It could be based on the well-established, if slightly ageing Russian Soyuz system, or it could be totally different.

The eventual form the CSTS will take will depend on what it is most likely to be used for: low earth orbit missions may call for different hardware than a moon shot, for instance.

"It will be a system with different components - one classical launcher probably, systems derived from the ATV. And if we want to go to the Moon, something that will have to be specific to that. We have in mind something very modular," Mr Sacotte said.

Russia will lead the study, funded by ESA to the tune of €18m, with the Soyuz manufacturer RKK Energia. EADS-Astrium and Thales Alenia Space will also send delegates.

The aim is to have a concrete plan in place by the time the European Space Agency's ministerial council reconvenes in 2008.

Meanwhile, the US is busy building its replacement for the Space Shuttle, which is set to be retired in 2010. It looks likely that it will drop the complex space plane approach of the Shuttle set up, and return to a simpler configuration of a flight capsule on a rocket, recalling the Apollo missions. ®

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