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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2005, 20:42 GMT 21:42 UK
Plans for Euro-Russian spaceplane

By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter, Moscow

Clipper (European Space Agency)
A mock-up of the Clipper on display at the Moscow Airshow
The European Space Agency (Esa) is proposing joining forces with Russia to develop a new vehicle for human spaceflight, the Clipper.

The six-person spaceplane would give European astronauts autonomous access to the space station and the Moon.

Esa will ask its member states to fund a 30-40m-euro (20-27m) preparatory study at its next ministerial meeting.

Russia is planning to replace its ageing Soyuz capsule with the Clipper and is seeking international partners.

The Soyuz has been in operation since the late 1960s, flying cosmonauts back and forth to Salyut, Mir and the International Space Station.

Regarded as the workhorse of Russia's manned and unmanned space fleet, it is one of the most reliable spacecraft ever built.

2011: First Clipper test flight
2012: First crewed Clipper flight
2014: Soyuz phased out
But Russia is looking to the future and is planning to replace the Soyuz with a new vehicle that would be capable of taking cosmonauts into lunar orbit.

"The objective is to have a vehicle which is more comfortable than the Soyuz capsule which will be used with pilots and four passengers," Alain Fournier-Sicre, head of the Esa permanent mission in the Russian Federation, told the BBC News website.

"It's meant to service the space station and to go between Earth and an orbit around the Moon with six crew members."

People carrier

The Clipper is essentially a "people carrier" designed to transport astronauts, said Alan Thirkettle, head of the Esa's Human Spaceflight Development Department.

For future exploration, when we have the objective of going to the Moon, it is important to have several possibilities to go there
Alain Fournier-Sicre, Esa
By joining forces with Russia, Europe would have access to a fixed number of seats on the vehicle, perhaps one or two per flight, for use by its own astronauts.

"At the moment we have to ask the Russians or ask the Americans to fly an astronaut," said Mr Thirkettle. "Through participation in the Clipper, we would have the right to seats when we want them."

European industry would benefit, too, from Russia's years of experience in human spaceflight, he said. Russia, in return, would have access to certain technologies that are more sophisticated in Europe.

"It potentially is a fairly happy marriage," said Mr Thirkettle.

Lunar goals

Russia intends to build the Clipper within the next decade, carrying out the first automatic test flight in 2011, and the first manned flights in 2012 The fleet would gradually be phased in, finally replacing the Soyuz in 2014.

Soyuz rocket
The Soyuz programme, in use since 1966, has been an outstanding success
The Clipper would allow Russia and Europe to collaborate with the Americans on lunar exploration, allowing six astronauts to orbit the Moon and to act as a back-up rescue craft, if needed.

"Experience has shown that it is very important within an international programme to have a robust approach in terms to access to space," said Mr Fournier-Sicre.

"For future exploration, when we have the objective of going to the Moon, it is important to have several possibilities to go there, and within this framework of cooperation to have our own access to orbit around the Moon."

The Clipper also enhances the possibility of space tourism.

"On the Russian side, of course, they have in mind space tourism and propose a certain level of comfort; but the main objective is science," said Mr Fournier-Sicre.

Esa is to ask member states to fund a two-year study looking into the logistics of the scheme when ministers meet on 5-6 December.

The development and operational side of the programme is expected to cost around 100m (68m) euros a year.

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