ESA Preps Mini Spaceplane for Suborbital Jaunt

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Illustration: J.Huart/ESA

Next month, the European Space Agency will launch a spaceplane the size of a small car into a suborbital trajectory to test its autonomous reentry capabilities. The IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) will take off on top of a rocket in French Guiana, fly over most of Europe and Asia, reenter the atmosphere, and if all goes well, splash down somewhere in the South Pacific.

Here’s a good look at the IXV itself on a test stand, featuring lots of serious looking men in funny hats:

IXV is about 5 meters long, and weighs about 2 tons. As it drops back to Earth from 412 km up, it’ll reach speeds of up to 7.5 km/s, relying on aerodynamic flaps and thrusters to keep itself under control.

Somewhat disappointingly, the IXV isn’t the sort of spaceplane that goes up and down by itself; it’s the sort of spaceplane that, like the space shuttle, is designed primarily for controllable reentry. To get into space in the first place, it relies on a rocket, in this case, a Vega launcher

If this entire setup (a rocket-launched robotic spaceplane that can return to land on a convential runway) seems somehow familiar, it’s probably because it looks like a different take on this:

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The X-37B started off as a technology demonstration project between NASA and Boeing, to “test technologies in the harsh environments of space and atmospheric reentry.” That was a decade ago; now, the X-37B is flying classified missions for the Air Force, most recently spending over a year and a half in orbit. Boeing is also working on a scaled-up version of the X-37, the X-37C, that would be able to carry up to six astronauts. Basically, it would be a reusable, bite-size space shuttle.

ESA, meanwhile, says that the IXV is designed to explore the following potential applications:

  • Servicing orbital infrastructure (for example, the International Space Station)
  • Servicing future generation satellites (for example, in-orbit refuelling or disposal)
  • Microgravity experiments
  • Earth sciences (for example, high-altitude atmospheric research),
  • Earth observation (for example, crisis monitoring),
  • Robotic exploration (for example, sample return from Mars or asteroids)

Nothing about carrying humans into space and no military applications (that we know about), and from our perspective, it’s far more exciting to see that last one, suggesting that the technologies being developed for the IXV could one day take us much farther out into space.

Assuming all goes well on 11 February, ESA will be building toward an end-to-end mission, with a rocket launch, orbit of the Earth, and controlled autonomous runway landing.

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