Buoyed by a surprise investment from Britain, the European Space Agency secured approval from its member states on Wednesday to develop a service module for NASA's Orion deep space exploration vehicle, giving the continent a stake in human missions beyond low Earth orbit.
The initial investment, worth $320 million over the next two years, will start development of a propulsion and power module for the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, or MPCV.
Britain, which has eschewed contributing the space station in the past, put the proposal over the top with a pledge to pay 20 million euros, or about $25 million, for the service module.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general, said the development could help a European astronaut secure a spot on Orion crews bound for deep space, the moon, or asteroids. The European-built service module will contain fuel tanks, provide propulsion, and hold Orion's solar panels to generate electricity. NASA plans to provide a maneuvering engine to mount on the service module.
In a meeting of government ministers in Italy on Tuesday and Wednesday, ESA's member states haggled over the agency's budget, eventually settling on 10 billion euros, or $13 billion, in spending from ESA's 20 member states over the next few years.
Top agenda items included decisions on a future European launcher and the extension of Europe's involvement in the International Space Station.
Governments agreed to upgrade Europe's existing Ariane 5 launcher and put off a decision on a replacement rocket until mid-2014. And officials came to a consensus to continue ESA's support of the space station until 2020, a pivotal decision which hinged on the Orion service module.
The first flight of a full-up Orion capsule is scheduled for launch in late 2017. The unmanned mission will launch on NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lifting rocket being developed to facilitate missions beyond Earth orbit.
The flight plan calls for the 16.5-foot-diameter capsule to fly around the moon and return to Earth on a voyage lasting more than one week.
"The first flight is to go to the moon," Dordain said. "And we can say we will be part of the first flight of the MPCV by delivering the service module.
Construction of the service module for the 2017 mission will pay back NASA for Europe's share of the space station's operating costs. The space station partners prefer supplying a "barter element" to reimburse NASA for the costs rather than paying in cash.