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ESA’s IXV spaceplane successfully completes test flight

Vega rocket as seen on Spaceflight Insider

ESA's IXV successfully launched from the Kourou spaceport on Feb. 11. Photo Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its experimental spaceplane  at 8:40 a.m. EST (13:40 GMT) Feb. 11 from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana atop a Vega rocket. The goal of the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) mission was to test reentry technologies and acquire data  for the development of future reusable unmanned spacecraft.

The IXV is a lifting body spacecraft about the size of a car. It has thermal protective shells of ceramics and ablatives to resist the intense heat of reentry. It uses its thrusters and aerodynamic flaps to maneuver during its hypersonic and super sonic flight phases.

17 minutes and 59 seconds after liftoff, the IXV spacecraft separated from the Vega rocket at an altitude of 211 miles (340 kilometers) and continued up to 256 miles (412 kilometers) before beginning its descent. The IXV recorded data during its descent using more than 300 advanced and conventional sensors.

The two-ton, five-meter long IXV maneuvered as it descended to decelerate from hypersonic to supersonic speed. Its speed of 4 miles (7.5 kilometers) per second at an altitude of 74 miles (120 kilometers) created the same conditions as those for a spacecraft returning from low Earth orbit.

Artist's conception of the IXV reentering Earth's atmosphere. Image Credit: ESA

Artist’s conception of the IXV reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Image Credit: ESA

The IXV glided through the atmosphere before deploying parachutes to slow its descent before safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, just west of the Galapagos islands. The spacecraft was kept afloat by four large balloons as it waited to be picked up by the recovery vessel Nos Aries.

The IXV will be returned to Europe for detailed analysis at the ESA’s technical center, ESTEC, in the Netherlands. Initial results from the flight should be released in about six weeks.

IXV photo credit S. Corvaja ESA

IXV lifted off atop a Vega booster from Kourou, French Guiana. Photo Credit: S. Corvaja / ESA

Data from the IXV mission will be used in the development of the ESA’s  Programme for Reusable In-Orbit Demonstrator for Europe, or PRIDE, spaceplane. The reusable PRIDE spacecraft will launch atop a Vega rocket, orbit and land automatically on a runway.

“IXV has opened a new chapter for ESA in terms of reentry capabilities and reusability,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General. “ESA and its Member States, together with European space industry, are now ready to take up new challenges in several fields of space transportation, in future launchers, robotic exploration or human spaceflight.”

“This was a short mission with big impact,” notes Giorgio Tumino, IXV project manager. “The cutting-edge technology we validated today, and the data gathered from the sensors aboard IXV, will open numerous opportunities for Europe to develop ambitious plans in space transportation for a multitude of applications.”

The launch was also an important demonstration of the capabilities of the Vega rocket.  The Vega is a single-body launcher with three solid-propellant stages and a liquid propellant upper stage. Vega is designed to loft small, 660–4400 pounds (300-2000 kilogram) satellites into low and polar orbits.

The next Vega launch, carrying the ESA’s Sentinel-2A Earth science satellite, is scheduled for mid-June. Another ESA mission, the LISA Pathfinder mission is scheduled for September.

Recovery of ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle in the Pacific Ocean just west of the Galapagos islands. Photo Credit: ESA, Tommaso Javidi

Recovery of ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle in the Pacific Ocean just west of the Galapagos islands. Photo Credit: ESA, Tommaso Javidi


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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.

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