Europe Tests Re-entry Tech for Reusable Spacecraft

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An atmospheric re-entry demonstration vehicle built by Thales Alenia Space for the European Space Agency (ESA) completed a splashdown test June 19.

The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, a 5-meter prototype of a lifting body spacecraft, splashed down into the sea off Italy after being released from an altitude of 3,000 meters by a helicopter. 

As it fell, the vehicle picked up speed to simulate the velocities it might experience on a return from orbit. Eventually, the craft deployed a parachute to slow its speed for a safe splashdown into the water at less than 25.2 kilometers per hour.

“This last step in a series of tests shows that IXV can be recovered safely after its mission into space,” ESA officials wrote in a statement.

The test flight involved a complex choreography of steps to enable the safe landing. After the IXV’s parachute was deployed, two heat shield covers were cut off from around the parachute and 16 nonexplosive actuators were fired to release the panels covering flotation balloons to soften the vehicle’s landing. Then beacons were deployed communicating the craft’s position, and engineers received a signal via satellite of the IXV’s position, bobbing in the water, enabling it to be recovered and taken to land.

Most of the test steps apparently went smoothly, though engineers are investigating an anomaly that occurred in inflating the balloons.

“This test highlights the importance of early in-flight verification to secure a robust space vehicle design, confirming the technical direction and possibly suggesting further improvements,” officials wrote.

Next year, engineers are planning to test the IXV from an even greater drop height. The vehicle will be launched on Europe’s suborbital Vega rocket to the edge of space, where it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere as if returning from an orbital flight. This time, the IXV technology will have to protect the craft from re-entry beginning at hypersonic speeds.