The European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for its planned Feb. 11 launch of the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) from Kourou, French Guiana, atop a Vega launch vehicle. The flight was postponed from November last year; according to ESA, engineers wanted to “allow for additional analyses of the Vega flight trajectory.”
ESA stated in an IXV update: “On 23 October , the decision to postpone the launch was taken by the launch authorities as a result of safety concerns that required additional analysis. Finding an alternative trajectory solved the issue.” The Vega launch vehicle has not yet flown a mission with a suborbital trajectory. Jose-Maria Gallego Sanz, ESA’s IXV launch campaign manager, underscored that the spaceplane is flight ready: “Launch preparations have resumed. Batteries that were removed from IXV are being taken from cold storage, charged and reinstalled. No additional tests are needed – IXV is ready to fly.”
The IXV spaceplane is meant to help Europe further develop flight and reentry technologies for future projects. In an article previously published on AmericaSpace, the author wrote, “The flight is meant to investigate the conditions the vehicle will encounter during atmospheric reentry, and to test critical systems needed to return Europe’s future automated reentry vehicles.” The Vega will take the spaceplane on a suborbital trajectory; the launch vehicle has previously lofted payloads into polar orbits.
At a weight of 1,800 kilograms (4,000 pounds) and with a length of five meters, the IXV has been described as “about the size of a car.” A “snug fit” inside the Vega’s payload fairing, the IXV will be released at an altitude of 320 km (198 miles). The spaceplane will then ascend to an altitude of 420 km (260 miles) before being poised for reentry.
ESA added: “The entry speed of 7.5 km/s at an altitude of 120 km will create the same conditions as those for a vehicle returning from low orbit. IXV will glide through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds to test new European reentry technologies before parachutes deploy to slow the descent for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.” In the last few weeks, the crew of the recovery ship Nos Aries, stationed in Panama, have been testing equipment meant to recover the IXV. The mission is expected to last approximately 100 minutes.
Similar to the United States’ recent test of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on Dec. 5, 2014, the IXV is loaded with sensors to gain valuable data concerning performance during flight and reentry. Jose Longo, ESA’s head of aerothermodynamics, said last year: “The technical advancements that have been made since the first experiments with our Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator in 1996 are huge. 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. These things just cannot be tested in the same way in laboratories.”
Spaceplanes have captured the imagination of the space-viewing public since the 1950s, when the North American X-15 made its debut and the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar was on the drawing board. While the most famous spaceplane of all time was retired in 2011 (the space shuttle), the dream of “flying with wings” in space is still alive. Europe’s previous ambitions for a spaceplane were hinted at during the 1970s and 1980s with Hermes, which was meant to launch atop an Ariane 5 launch vehicle. However, plans for Hermes never left the drawing board, and the program was canceled in 1992.
In November, a previous AmericaSpace article outlined Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) ambitions for landing the Dream Chaser spaceplane at public airports. Despite not having been awarded a Commercial Crew contract by NASA, the company has not given up on its vehicle; SNC still hopes to use it for commercial services.
Mike Killian wrote: “The fact is the spacecraft’s unique lifting-body winged design offers numerous potential applications that no other existing spacecraft can, and the aerospace community is taking note regardless of NASA’s decision to select two capsules for the same job. Earlier this month SNC and partner organization RS&H, Inc., presented findings regarding the challenges and opportunities of landing Dream Chaser at public airports during the Space Traffic Management Conference at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, Fla., summarizing the vehicle’s capabilities and describing their efforts to land at commercial airports with minimal impact to existing operations.”
In addition, the Air Force’s ultra-secretive X-37B spaceplane, which spent a record 675 days in orbit from December 2012 to October 2014, is set to make its next jaunt into orbit this year. While the space shuttle may be a thing of the past, Europe’s IXV, along with U.S. spaceplanes, show that humans continue to pine for “wings into orbit.”