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ESA's spaceplane in final tests

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Jul 17, 2014, 21:55 UTC

Sen—ESA's new spaceplane is undergoing final tests ahead of a planned launch in November. The  Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) is set to showcase reentry technologies following an unconventional launch on a Vega rocket.

IXV will be launched into a suborbital trajectory on ESA’s small Vega rocket from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, the vehicle will return to Earth as though from a low-orbit mission.

For the first time, it will test and qualify European critical reentry technologies in hypersonic flight, descend by parachute and land in the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.

IXV is manoeuvrable and able to make precise landings—it is the ‘intermediate’ element of Europe’s path to future developments with limited risks. The mission will flight test the technologies and critical systems for Europe’s future automated reentry vehicles returning from low orbit. This is a first for Europe and those working in the field are keeping a close watch.

IXV weighs almost two tonnes, close to Vega’s lifting capacity, and will be a tight fit inside the vehicle’s fairing. It is 5 m long, 1.5 m high, and 2.2 m wide, about the size of a car, and has 300 sensors that will gather data during its suborbital path back to Earth.

The information gained will be used for progress in atmospheric reentry, oriented towards transportation systems with applications in exploration, science, Earth observation, microgravity and clean space.

Artwork showing the locations of IXV external sensors. Image credit: ESA

Engineers are forging ahead with the final tests to check that it can withstand the demanding conditions from liftoff to separation from Vega. Instead of heading north into a polar orbit—as on previous flights—Vega will head eastwards to release the spaceplane into a suborbital path reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Jose Longo, ESA's head of aerothermodynamics, said in a stateent: "This is the first flight demonstration of features such as highly advanced thermal structures: thrusters and flaps that are part of the control system, and the 300 sensors and infrared camera to map the heating all along the spacecraft from the nose to the flaps. These things just cannot be tested in the same way in laboratories."

Giorgio Tumino, ESA's IXV project manager, said: "In this mission we are not only monitoring the spacecraft all along its autonomous flight, but also tracking its progress back to Earth to a particular spot – this is different to what we are used to." 

Final tests being carried out on the IXV. Image credit: ESA

When IXV splashes down in the Pacific at the end of its mission it will be recovered by ship and returned to Europe for detailed analysis to assess the performance and condition of the internal and external structures. The actual performance will be compared with predictions to improve computer modelling of the materials used and the spaceplane’s design.

The third IXV workshop in ESA's Technical Centre, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands was packed out last week.

"It is very encouraging to see such interest in this programme," added Giorgio. "Follow-up activities to this mission will build on the current industrial organisation and associated technologies will provide opportunities to newcomers."

ESA’s IXV reentry vehicle mission animation. Credit: ESA