Astrium has undertaken a study for the European Space Agency on a future space transport system, the advanced re-entry vehicle (ARV), that will transport cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The $21m phase A study by Astrium will advance the development of an unmanned cargo transport vehicle evolved from the automated transfer vehicle (ATV).

The system will equip the spaceship with the capability to return to Earth safely unlike the current version of the ATV that burns up during re-entry.

The development of the ARV is seen as a necessary undertaking since Nasa plans to retire its shuttle fleet in 2010 leaving limited options for transporting crew and material from the ISS to earth.

After evaluating the different options for transporting cargo to and from the ISS, the study will further investigate possibilities of using the ARV to fly astronauts into space and return them safely back to Earth.

The first demonstration flight for the 18-month ARV programme is slated for 2016.