Europe's experimental space plane being recovered after its return from a suborbital flight

Europe's first step towards reusable space planes completed

An experimental space plane has completed a sub-orbital flight, allowing the European Space Agency to test innovative technology needed for future reusable spacecraft.

The Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), designed as a so called ‘lifting body’, is a cross between simple space capsules and elaborate space shuttles. Part of the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Future Launchers Preparatory Programme, the test will provide European engineers with a wealth of data required if Europe ever wants to develop an independent capability not only to return material from space but also to ferry astronauts.

“We have a shape that is a lifting body, so it’s a compromise between capsules, which have limited manoeuvrability and controllability - although they are reliable - and winged vehicles like the space shuttle that have high controllability and manoeuvrability but are very complex and very risky,” IXV project manager Giorgio Tumino told E&T ahead of the flight.

“We are also testing critical technology, such as thermal protection systems and advanced navigation and control, and we also need to study the thermodynamic phenomena in flight.

The space plane, fitted with some 300 sensors, took off from Esa’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 13.40 GMT on Wednesday afternoon aboard the Vega rocket.

The launch, already postponed since November last year, was 40 minutes delayed due to problems with data transmission systems.

After having reached the altitude of 348km, the IXV separated from the launcher and coasted up to the altitude of 413km before gliding back towards the Earth.

“The IXV is basically testing the technologies in flight without going to orbit, that’s why it’s sub-orbital,” Tumino explained. “But for us, what is important is the impact into the atmosphere at the 120 km altitude at the speed of 7.5km/s which are fully representative of a return from orbit.”

The flight, which ended with a splashdown into the Pacific Ocean, will allow the engineers to evaluate the thermal and aerodynamic behaviour of the spacecraft in extreme conditions with accuracy beyond the abilities of computer modelling or wind tunnel testing.

Various innovative materials including high-tech carbon composites as well as rather simple ablative materials such as cork were protecting the plane against extreme temperatures during the re-entry.

Esa said assessment of the data gathered during the flight would be released in about six weeks.

The first such experiment carried out by the European industry, paves way for the development of Europe’s first reusable in-orbit demonstrator, which, unlike IXV should be able to land automatically on a runway.

“What we are investigating are things that nobody knows in Europe today,” Tumino said. “But if one day Europe has the ambition to bring back European astronauts with European technologies, with European systems, this step is fundamental, the IXV mission is fundamental for any future ambitions Europe might have to bring back astronauts with European spaceships.”

Europe has so far been building only disposable cargo vehicles such as the ATV. Currently, China, USA and Russia have the capability to return cargo and/or astronauts from the Earth’s orbit. However, all those spacecraft are designed as the less controllable capsules. The Dream Chaser space plane, akin to the retired Space Shuttle, was rejected by Nasa in favour of simpler capsules by Boeing and SpaceX as the future means for America to transport human crew to and from the International Space Station.

The IXV project cost about €150m.

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