65th International Astronautical Congress | European Re-entry Demonstrator Ready for November Test Flight

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TORONTO — An experimental European Space Agency spacecraft designed to test re-entry technologies for future reusable vehicles is on track for launch in November.

“All lights seem to be green” for the Nov. 18 launch of the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) on an Arianespace Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, Giuseppe Rufolo, an ESA engineer working on the program, said in a presentation at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 2.

The Vega will boost the IXV on a suborbital trajectory, where it will reach a peak altitude of 450 kilometers before re-entering and splashing down in the central Pacific Ocean. The vehicle will reach speeds of 7.5 kilometers per second during re-entry, similar to a re-entry from low Earth orbit.

The IXV, a lifting body about 5 meters long and weighing nearly 2,000 kilograms, is heavily instrumented to study the vehicle’s performance during re-entry, including the use of ceramics and other materials in its thermal protection system.

Thales Alenia Space Italia of Rome is the prime contractor for the IXV, Europe’s first atmospheric re-entry vehicle in 16 years. IXV’s predecessor, dubbed the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator, reached an altitude of about 830 kilometers before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

ESA expects to spend roughly 200 million euros ($250 million) on the IXV, including launch.

Although the IXV is designed to test technologies that could be used on future reusable vehicles, Rufolo said this vehicle will fly only once. “It’s not considered a waterproof structure, so after splashdown water will get inside,” he explained. “There is no reusability requirement for IXV.”

The next step after IXV is the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE), which will develop a small orbital vehicle launched on a Vega to further test reusability technologies, including the ability to land on a runway autonomously.

ESA ministers approved starting work on PRIDE at their 2012 meeting. In another presentation at the conference, Camillo Richiello, a project manager at the Italian aerospace research center CIRA, said PRIDE is in “standby” at the moment, awaiting an updated framework that will come out of this December’s ministerial meeting.