IXV Makes a Splash as ESA Spaceplane Effort Treads Water

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TURIN, Italy – A European spaceplane technology demonstrator was successfully launched Feb. 11 on a 100-minute suborbital mission that took it into space for nearly an hour before it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean more than halfway around the world.

The 5-meter-long Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) successfully sent telemetry as it re-entered the atmosphere, delivering data from its sensors and making physical recovery of the ship less crucial.

“In order to develop reentry technology, we have to have a reentry program.”

Supported by flotation devices, the vehicle was awaiting pickup by the same Italy-based ship that received the telemetry and took photos of the vehicle in the water.

European Space Agency officials said the parachutes had functioned as specified in slowing IXV’s descent, and that its flotation devices – there are four of them – also deployed correctly.

The launch extended the perfect record of Europe’s Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher – four successes in its first four missions. Vega program officials said that not only has the rocket made history as the first European rocket to conduct a flawless first four flights, but it has done so with very different mission profiles.

Vega VV04 carrying ESA’s experimental spaceplane, IXV, lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Feb. 11. Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja
Vega VV04 carrying ESA’s experimental spaceplane, IXV, lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Feb. 11. Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja

“All that we need to work on now is the price,” said one European government official, referring to Vega’s current cost structure, which is considered too high for the market.

Reflecting the predominance of Italy in the IXV program, the mission was controlled from ALTEC, the Advanced Logistics Technology Engineering Center, which is owned by Thales Alenia Space, the Italian Space Agency, Italian aerospace conglomerate Finmeccanica and Italy’s Piedmont regional government.

The IXV mission cost European Space Agency governments about 210 million euros ($275 million), including 40 million euros for the Vega launch.

The launch had been delayed from November because of a dispute between ESA and the French space agency, CNES – which has prime launch authority because Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is on French territory in French Guiana – over the safety of Vega’s unusual flight profile.

Most launches from the European spaceport, located on South America’s northeast coast, head north over the ocean. But IXV required a Vega flight heading dead east, over the town of Kourou, French Guiana.

The November IXV launch was scrapped when CNES declined to give launch authorization. The flight trajectory was slightly modified – forcing a change-out of the Vega flight control software – and rescheduled for February.

The Feb. 11 flight also bore the stamp of continued concern for flight safety. The countdown was stopped four minutes before liftoff to give spaceport range-safety officials time to verify the exceptional telemetry measures they added for the flight to cover those several seconds when Vega, its solid-fueled second and third stages full, flew over Kourou after liftoff.

Weighing some 1,844 kilograms and chock-full of sensors, the IXV is the first European atmospheric re-entry experiment since 1998, when a capsule was launched into a suborbital flight in what was intended to be a sustained program on re-entry technologies.

It was not to be. The IXV project survived only because of the insistence of the Italian government, which is also the main backer of the Vega rocket. The IXV employs a lifting-body design with no wings, but two flaps for control during re-entry. European officials said it is thus a midpoint between the U.S. shuttle and the Russian Soyuz capsule.

What happens next for Europe’s re-entry technology plan is unclear. An Italian-led project called PRIDE, or Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe, received only lukewarm support from European governments when they met in December to fix strategy and spending plans.

Robert Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, said after the IXV launch that he hoped the mission’s success would catalyze support for PRIDE as part of a broader European program on rocket reusability, re-entry technologies and planetary exploration.

“In order to develop reentry technology, we have to have a reentry program,” Battiston said.