European Re-entry Experiment Progresses Toward Planned October Launch

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TURIN, Italy — Europe’s first atmospheric re-entry vehicle in 16 years is scheduled to complete integration here in May and then to be sent for vibration and acoustic testing before arriving at Europe’s French Guiana spaceport for a planned October launch.

The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, IXV, is designed to separate from Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher at an altitude of 320 kilometers. The vehicle will reach an apogee of some 412 kilometers and follow a low-inclination trajectory, 5 degrees relative to the equator, on its way to a re-entry and parachute-softened splashdown in the South Pacific.

IXV, budgeted at around 200 million euros ($274 million) including launch, may appear as something of a relic of another era at the 20-nation European Space Agency, which at one point seemed determined to develop its own re-entry capability.

Those plans are now on hold, but the IXV, with strong support from the Italian Space Agency (ASI), survived a near-death experience around 2009.

Europe’s only previous experience with atmospheric re-entry of a recoverable object dates from 1998, when the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator reached an altitude of about 830 kilometers before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Since then, Europe has launched four large Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo freighters to the international space station. These vehicles are guided to a re-entry over the South Pacific, but are designed to break up into multiple pieces and burn up in the atmosphere.

Some ESA member governments had sought to modify the ATV to permit it to return intact carrying space station experiments. These plans were scrapped because of a lack of financing.

Stefano Bianchi, head of ESA’s launcher development department, said the agency is preparing an IXV follow-on program for its governments to be submitted in June.

ESA’s IXV program manager, Giorgio Tumino, said there are multiple follow-on applications for re-entry technologies for programs in which Europe has shown an interest, including Mars sample-return missions and the return of microgravity experiments from the space station.

Part of the problem at ESA is that the governments that appear to be most interested in re-entry technologies are not all involved in IXV. Germany, for example, is not among the seven ESA member states that have financed the IXV project despite Germany’s own Shefex re-entry demonstrator program, whose future is unclear. Shefex has never made an orbital flight.

Built by Thales Alenia Space, IXV is a lifting-body, shoe-shaped vehicle 5 meters in length, 2.2 meters in width and 1.5 meters in height. It is expected to weigh 1,957 kilograms, about the maximum allowed for the Vega rocket.

The vehicle is equipped with more than 300 sensors and has thrusters and flaps to permit it to change orientation in flight.

It is expected to re-enter, at an altitude of about 120 kilometers, over Indonesia at a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second. That is when its experiments switch on.

IXV will descend to 26.7 kilometers in altitude and slow down to a speed of 1.6 times the speed of sound, at which point its U.S.-built supersonic parachute, supplied by Pioneer Aerospace Corp. of South Windsor, Conn., will open. By the time this happens the vehicle will be 7,700 kilometers down range from its atmospheric re-entry point.

The remaining parachutes will then open and the vehicle will splash down in a target area with a touchdown speed of less than 7 meters per second. Balloons will open to keep it afloat as it awaits recovery by an Italian ship. ESA has defined a 20-kilometer-wide landing area, with the ship stationed outside of it.

Bianchi said Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium, which will be managing the launch, has a crowded manifest in 2014, with medium-lift European Soyuz rockets and heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicles competing for available launch slots.

“The manifest is certainly complex this year,” Bianchi said. “For IXV and the Vega program our first priority is to arrive in Kourou [the Guiana Space Center] to be ready for an October slot.”

Once it leaves the Thales Alenia Space facility here, IXV will undergo several weeks of testing at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre  in Noordwijk, Netherlands, before being shipped to the spaceport in late August.