The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the largest and most ambitious space projects created, 40 years after the initial explorations on the Moon. ISS is an orbital base for research and for discovery of new knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in Space. The ISS is being built and assembled as a joint project between the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the 11 European Space Agency member countries. Conceived in the 1960s and initiated in the mid-1980s, America’s large-scale space station became an international project in 1988. In-orbit assembly began in 1998 with the launch of the Russian Zarya (“dawn”) functional cargo block, the first cornerstone of the ISS.
The ISS orbits at an altitude of approximately 340 km above Earth’s surface and travels at an average speed of 27,700 km/h, completing 15 orbits per day. The station weighs over 400 tons and cover an area the size of a football pitch. With a habitable volume in excess of 1,200 m3, it will be the most complex object ever designed to date. More than 50 flights (Shuttle, Soyuz, etc.) will have been necessary to assemble its 100+ constituent parts.
Thanks to the sophisticated instruments already in use and the others in development phase, the ISS allows scientists to work in microgravity conditions, to conduct medical, physicist and biological research, to create new materials and to carry out technological trials. As a whole, the Space Station itself is a major “experiment”, namely the existing evidence that human life can exist in orbital environments over prolonged periods of time. The construction of this advanced outpost among the stars demonstrates the extraordinary potential of the space sector when institutions and industries can cooperate at the highest levels.
Leonardo participates in the programme through its joint venture Thales Alenia Space and through its Electronics Division.
Thales Alenia Space
Thales Alenia Space in Italy and, in particular, its plant in Turin, gave an essential contribution to the ISS’s development, building several modules of the “orbiting home”. The three MPLMs (Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules), the goods/people transport modules are among the symbol projects. Other crowning achievements of Thales Alenia Space Italia’s activities for the space station in Turin are the Columbus European laboratory for microgravity research; the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) modules, automatic logistics systems with maximum refuelling and materials loads for astronauts up to 7,300 kilograms; NODES 2 and 3, elements that connect the pressurized modules of the “orbiting home” together, and the CUPOLA, a special observatory to allow the astronauts on board the station to operate the remote robotic arm during the module assembly operations.
Thales Alenia Space also built the Pressurized Cargo Modules (PCM) for the Cygnus resupply vessel, and is prime contractor for ESA’s IXV and its successor Space Rider.
PCMs (Pressurized Cargo Modules) are the pressurized modules built by Thales Alenia Space, primarily in their plant in Turin, for transporting cargo, crew supplies, spare parts and scientific experiments to the International Space Station. They are integrated with Cygnus, the unmanned resupply spacecraft, incapable of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, whose Service Module (SM) was developed by Orbital Science Corporation and conceived after the Space Shuttle was withdrawn from service in 2011.
Cygnus is a spacecraft with much simpler electronics than other modules that reach the ISS: both the ATV and the Russian Progress spacecraft have sophisticated automatic docking systems not present on this space capsule. Docking is performed by astronauts onboard the station using a robotic arm. Cygnus simply moves closer to the ISS and is slotted into position. The entire mission was supported in real time by a joint Thales Alenia Space and Altec team that will reside in Altec’s Mission Support Complex.
Over time, the Electronics Division has contributed to the International Space Station project with several instruments and activities, starting from the VCA-COF (Video Camera Assembly for Columbus Orbital Facility): a video camera with zoom lens for surveillance and support to the activities inside the International Space Station. The Division also provided the FASTER tool (Facility for Absorption and Surface tension Research), which was in orbit from March to September 2014, designed to study the links and the physicochemical properties of different liquids and to acquire results for the food pharmaceutical and chemical industry. The FASTER tool will be replaced by LIFT (LIuid Film Tension), a more advanced device designed for the same type of analysis. The FASTER was tested by Telespazio in its role of User Support and Operation Centre for the ISS.
The Airborne & Space Systems Division was also involved in the assembly and testing of the ISSpresso, designed by Argotec and Lavazza, the very first coffee machine ever sent into orbit in April 2015 for experiments on the behaviour of fluids and mixtures in microgravity.
(photo credits ESA)