The European Space Agency is preparing to test the atmospheric re-entry capabilities of its new early concept spaceplane, the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV). The test flight is slated for launch in November atop a European made Vega rocket, with the hope that results will inform the design of future ESA spacecraft.

The overriding goal in pursuing the project is to lessen the ESA's dependence on the current generation of Russian made Soyuz return vehicles. Whilst the IXV test vehicle is designated as a spaceplane, you could be forgiven for thinking that, at least on the outside, it looks anything but. Instead, in its current stage of development the IXV resembles a simple fuselage.

The apparent simplicity in the design of the IXV is due to the fact that the spacecraft represents a preliminary stage of testing, with an emphasis on proving basic but vital technology for more advanced concepts in the future. The agency intends to take the lessons taken from the November launch and begin the process of creating a viable autonomous re-entry spacecraft with a focus on modularity and flexibility in orbital operations.

cross section view of the IXV mounted aboard a Vega rocket (Image: ESA–J. Huart, 2014)

The November launch is primarily designed to test the vehicle's ability to withstand the intense heat and pressure of re-entry into our planet's dense atmosphere. To survive these inhospitable conditions, the IXV has been equipped with a combination of ceramic plates similar to those used in the construction of NASA's Space Shuttle, combined with ablative materials akin to the heat shield slated for use in the American agency's next generation Orion spacecraft.

“This is the first flight demonstration of features such as highly advanced thermal structures: thrusters and flaps that are part of the control system, and the 300 sensors and infrared camera to map the heating all along the spacecraft from the nose to the flaps,” says ESA's head of aerothermodynamics Jose Longo. “These things just cannot be tested in the same way in laboratories.”

In total the test will last around one hour and forty minutes, during which time the team will take detailed measurements of the IXV's performance, with emphasis on the vehicle's aerodynamic, navigation and control systems. After re-entering Earth's atmosphere the craft will deploy parachutes and decelerate further, finally splashing down safely in the Pacific ocean.

“In this mission 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,” says Giorgio Tumino, the IXV project manager.

During the next few months the IXV will undergo further environmental, acoustic, and separation shock testing, before being shipped to ESA's main spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, for the planned November launch.

Source: ESA

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