ESA prepares IXV spaceplane for November launch
The European Space Agency (ESA ) is about to begin the testing of its unmanned Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) in preparation for its first launch, scheduled for November of this year. The tests will be conducted at the agency’s Technical Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands and are scheduled to begin on July 11.
The first batch of tests will last three weeks and require that the IXV be bolted to a “shaker table” to see if it can withstand the heavy vibrations of launch. The shake testing will be followed by three days of “separation shock” testing to simulate the moment the spacecraft separates from the Vega rocket.
The IXV will then be moved to the Large European Acoustic Facility where it will be exposed to the deafening roar of a rocket ascent for six days. The last 11 days of testing will be dedicated to ensuring that all of the onboard subsystems are functioning properly after the tests. In early September the IXV will be shipped to the ESA’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
This new spacecraft is about the size of an average automobile and weighs nearly two tons when fully fueled. It is a wingless lifting body with two aerodynamic flaps for maneuvering. The purpose of the IXV mission is to test technologies for future unmanned low-cost spaceplanes capable of operating modular payloads in orbit.
The IXV will be launched atop a Vega rocket on a suborbital trajectory that will take it to an altitude of 320 km (approximately 199 miles) where it will separate from the Vega rocket. It will reach an altitude of 450 km (280 miles), allowing it re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 7.5 km per second, matching the speed of a re-entry from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It will collect data during both hypersonic and supersonic flight while being controlled by flaps and thrusters. The IXV will then deploy parachutes to slow its descent for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
The ship Nos Aries, which will play a vital role in the IXV mission, made a practice run last month where it recovered an IXV prototype off the cost of Tuscany, Italy. During the IXV mission the ship will release weather balloons to check the wind conditions over the Pacific and provide information on the spacecraft’s descent path.
The crew of the Nos Aries will also receive data from the spacecraft’s 300 sensors and locate its beacon signal upon splashdown. Divers on speedboats will approach the floating IXV and then wait while robotic sniffers check for residual fumes before proceeding with the recovery.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.