Insider Photo Exclusive: ESA’s IXV space plane undergoes final tests before launch
NOORDWIJK, Netherlands — If everything goes according to schedule a European VEGA rocket will lift off from Europe’s Spaceport located in Kourou, French Guiana at 9 a.m. local time (8 a.m. EDT, 1200 GMT) on November 18. Its payload will be the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle or “IXV.” The IXV vehicle is developed by the European Space Agency (ESA )for flight testing the technologies and critical systems required for future autonomous controlled reentry for return missions from low-Earth-orbit as well as planetary sample return missions.
The IXV is currently at ESA’s technology center (ESTEC ) in the Netherlands for final testing of its systems and to determine it can withstand the conditions from lift-off to separation from the VEGA launch vehicle. Spaceflight Insider got exclusive access to the test center on September 4 to photograph the IXV for the final time before it is placed in its shipping container on September 10. On September 23, a Antonov cargo-plane will then fly the IXV to the Spaceport in French Guiana. Once there the IXV will be made ready for its launch and placed on top of the VEGA booster.
The IXV is 16 feet (5 meters) long, 5 feet (1.5 meters) high and 7 feet (2.2 meters) wide. It is about the size of a car and weighs almost 2 tons. IXV program manager Giorgio Tumino told Spaceflight Insider what the IXV mission will look like:
“Once launched the VEGA rocket will inject the IXV into a suborbital path with a 3 degree inclination to the equator. The IXV will separate from the Vega rocket at an altitude of about 199 miles (320 kilometers). It will then fly to a maximum altitude of around 261 miles (420 kilometer). At that height it will begin its return to Earth reaching a speed of 5 miles (7.5 kilometers) per second when it’s entering the atmosphere at an altitude of 75 miles (120 kilometers).”
During its flight back to Earth the IXV will be controlled by small thrusters and aerodynamic flaps.
“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,” Tumino said.
The IXV flight is the first demonstration of highly-advanced thermal structures. It uses 2 ceramic carbon fibber materials as its heat shield. 300 sensors all over the IXV spacecraft and an infrared camera to help to map the heating from the nose to the flaps.
From launch to landing in the Pacific Ocean the mission of the IXV will last about 6000 seconds. Slowed down by a parachute the IXV will carry out a water landing. Right after it splashes down, four panels on the vehicle will be jettisoned releasing floatation balloons.
The recovery ship will also receive the data from the IXV’s sensors during its return to Earth. The ship will pick up the signals to pinpoint the landing site.
Divers on speedboats will then approach the floating IXV and with help from robotic sniffers perform checks for residual propellant fumes. After an all-clear sign is given the recovery cranes will carefully lift the IXV to safety before the fuel tank is cleaned out for the journey home to Europe.
A native of the Netherlands, van Oene became ‘infected’ with the ‘space virus’ by an enthusiastic school teacher in 1981. Since 1994 he has been a freelance space photographer and writer for magazines and websites in Holland, Belgium and ‘Spaceflight’, the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society. van Oene is also the co-founder and CFO of SPACEPATCHES.NL. This Netherlands-based foundation currently produces all the official Soyuz crew patches for the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos.