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 The European Space Agency (Esa) says it is excited by its US counterpart's selection of a winged vehicle to resupply the space station.

Nasa has extended contracts to existing commercial cargo carriers, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, but has added a third team: the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

This new entrant will fly an automated mini-shuttle called Dream Chaser.

Esa has agreements to co-operate with SNC, which should now lead to European companies providing components.

Chief among these contributions will be the International Berthing and Docking Mechanism (IBDM) - a new system developed in Europe to join spacecraft together.

Dream Chaser will have one at its rear to make a sealed connection to a free port on the orbiting platform.

Astronauts will move through the IBDM to access the vehicle's several tonnes of supplies.
Huge co-operation

The selection of SNC by Nasa to run at least six cargo sorties to the ISS, starting no earlier than 2019, should trigger a multi-million-euro contract between Esa and QinetiQ of Belgium.

The firm will lead a consortium in the production of the first IBDM - a prototype model that will flight-qualify the design.

This would be given to the American spacecraft operator, but all future units would have to be purchased on a commercial basis.

"This is not solely institutional funding; it's a public-private partnership," explained Thomas Reiter, Esa's director of human spaceflight and operations.

"Esa member states are investing, but so too are the companies themselves.

"They are thinking about the recurring units, and you can imagine in view of huge co-operation in future space exploration that docking mechanisms will be key elements in demand."

Esa and the German space agency (DLR) signed memoranda of understanding with SNC back in 2014, when Dream Chaser was being touted as a possible astronaut carrier.

At the time, the then head of DLR, Jan Woerner, spoke of his interest in seeing the vehicle launch on Europe's Ariane rocket.

However, he qualified his comments by stating that for this to happen, Dream Chaser would need to be modified to have folding wings. This would enable it to fit under the protective fairing on the top of Ariane. Any other configuration would require costly aerodynamic research.