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Europe, Russia discuss 'orbital shipyard' plans

ISS to be replaced by Mars-ship docking facility?

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Space bigwigs in Russia and Europe are working on ambitious plans for an international space shipyard in orbit above the Earth, according to reports. The orbital shipyard would be used to assemble manned spacecraft capable of travelling to the Moon or Mars.

NASA concept of a nuclear-powered Mars ship with centrifuge crew accommodation

Despite the problem with the champagne at the launch ceremony,

the SS Red Planet went on to a successful career on the Mars run.

Flight International says that the plans have been discussed at meetings between officials of Roscosmos - the Russian space bureau - and the European Space Agency (ESA), in the context of multinational space efforts following the retirement of the International Space Station (ISS). According to Flight, the subject of an orbital ship-assembly facility was debated by ESA chief Jean-Jacques Dordain and other space bigwigs from Russia and the European Commission.

Involvement by the EC signifies interest from the European Union, as distinct from the ESA: while the ESA works closely with Brussels, it isn't part of the Union and its list of member states is different. Many EU nations aren't in the ESA, and some ESA countries aren't in the EU (Canada, for instance).

Flight reports that most of the world's major space agencies will come together to discuss Moon and Mars exploration in the post-ISS era at the Hague in June. China, which has said it would like to have a manned orbital facility by 2025, is expected to attend.

At the moment the multibillion-dollar ISS, still under construction, is set to be closed down in 2016 - though there is talk of keeping it in service until 2020. It is predominantly American and Russian, but has significant participation from the ESA, Japan and other countries.

Most current plans for manned flights and bases even on the Moon would involve some level of ship assembly in Earth orbit: NASA's Constellation programme would see lunar astronauts taking off aboard an Ares I rocket, but most of their stuff lifting off separately on an Ares V to rendezvous with them outside the atmosphere. Vessels capable of taking people to Mars and back would be likely to require more launches and more complex assembly in space.

Even so, it's not immediately clear exactly how a permanent Earth-orbit facility would help in the process of plugging together largely prefabricated modules or components.

The Flight report is here. ®

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