Space flight requires quite a lot of single-use machinery, and when you're talking about multi-million dollar rockets that are used once, that gets pretty expensive and wasteful. Blue Origin and SpaceX have made reusable rockets a reality, and now ESA has outlined a reusable Space Rider capsule, which would carry scientific equipment to the edge of space and back several times over.

Space Rider has its roots in ESA's Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), which performed a successful flight and re-entry test in 2015. The new capsule builds on that proof of concept, by adding a multi-purpose cargo bay that opens to space, landing gear for when it returns to Earth and a design that's been upgraded to ensure it can make the return trip at least five more times.

The capsule would be launched atop a Vega-C rocket and attached to an AVUM+ upper stage unit, which provides 600 watts of power and steers the craft once it's in orbit. The cargo bay can carry up equipment up to a maximum weight of 800 kg (1,763.7 lb) or volume of 1,200 liters (317 gal). The craft can then rotate itself depending on where the scientific payload needs to be pointed – it could for example, fly upside down if the equipment is intended to study the Earth, or sideways if the target is out in space.

Once the mission is complete, which could be two months or more, the Space Rider can then de-orbit itself, adjusting its angle of attack to re-enter the atmosphere. After it slows down enough, a parachute is deployed to bring it to the ground, touching down nice and soft on its landing gear.

The payloads can then be removed and a new set of equipment installed, ready to take flight again. The idea is that institutions and private companies can use the Space Rider as a platform to conduct experiments in low-Earth orbit, without needing to worry about how to launch and land a craft.

Space Rider has recently passed preliminary design reviews for its systems and subsystems, with a critical design review due at the end of this year. If all goes well, ESA plans to launch the reusable craft in 2022.

An animation of the Space Rider can be seen in the video below.

Source: ESA

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