The Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle is a test bed for technologies and designs to allow a spacecraft to survive atmospheric re-entry

Esa to test-fly experimental space plane

The European Space Agency (Esa) has dispatched its experimental IXV space plane to French Guiana for its second test flight in November.

The Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), a test bed for technologies for controlled re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere for future spacecraft carrying human crew, has left Esa’s technology centre in the Netherlands after months of laboratory testing.

During the testing, the vehicle was exposed to extreme conditions simulating those experienced in a space flight, including strong vibrations and noise exposure.

However, as not everything can be fully simulated in a laboratory, Esa will send the IXV for a short sub-orbital flight in mid-November. The 5m-long space plane will be lifted atop a Vega rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, to the altitude of 320km where it will be released from a protective fairing. The spacecraft will then climb on its own up to 420km above the Earth, the altitude of the International Space Station’s orbit.

Reaching this altitude would allow the engineers to fully simulate a re-entry from the low Earth orbit with the spacecraft hitting the atmosphere at 7.5km.

From the edge of the atmosphere at about 120km, the space plane will glide back to Earth, using its flaps, thrusters and a parachute to slow itself down. The two-ton spacecraft will splash down into the Pacific Ocean from where it will be recovered by an Esa team for further analysis.

The IXV test will be only the fourth flight of the Vega rocket since its maiden launch in 2012.


Watch Esa engineers test the IXV in the agency's technology centre in the Netherlands

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