€167 million Space Rider contract funds construction of Europe’s first orbital spaceplane


JOHANNESBURG — The European Space Agency has finalized a €167 million ($200 million) contract with Thales Alenia Space Italy and Avio to deliver Space Rider — Europe’s first robotic orbital spaceplane — in time for a mid-to-late 2023 launch atop an expendable rocket.

Under the contract signed Dec. 9 in Rome, Thales Alenia Space Italy will build Space Rider’s reusable reentry module while Avio will deliver an expendable service module and propulsion system.

The spaceplane’s planned 2023 launch — aboard a next-generation Vega C rocket built by Avio and operated by Arianespace — is not covered under the Dec. 9 contract. 

Space Rider is an evolution of the agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), suborbital reentry vehicle that flew its first and only mission in 2015, spending nearly an hour in space before a waterborne landing and recovery. 

Space Rider inherits IXV’s lifting body design for its atmospheric reentry module, which can carry up to 800 kilograms on payload in its cargo bay. Its expendable service module will extend Space Rider’s stay in orbit, allowing the spaceplane to serve as a free-flying orbital platform for a wide range of missions, similar to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B robotic spaceplanes. 

Space Rider’s critical design review is scheduled to occur between July and August. An early 2023 qualification review would clear the way for Space Rider’s first mission later that year.

If all goes to plan, Space Rider will lift off from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, atop a Vega C in the third quarter of 2023. 

The spaceplane will then spend approximately two months in orbit before jettisoning its service module and reentering Earth’s atmosphere, gliding back to a landing zone under a parafoil.

Space Rider is designed to launch atop an expendable rocket and spend two months in orbit before jettisoning its service module and returning to Earth. Space Rider’s reusable lifting body reentry vehicle will land with the assistance of a controllable parafoil. Credit: ESA


ESA is currently considering two landing sites for Space Rider’s first mission. The preferred option, officials said, is a return to Guiana Space Centre. A second option is Portugal’s Santa Maria island in the Azores archipelago.

Space Rider’s reentry vehicle is designed to require minimal refurbishment before being reflown. Its designers expect to get up to six missions out of the reusable reentry vehicle. 

Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo said Space Rider will be capable of completing a variety of functions during its missions, potentially including in-orbit serving activities.

Avio and Thales Alenia Space Italy began preliminary development of Space Rider in 2017 under a €36.7 million contract. The Space Rider program won full funding last November during the ESA Space19+ ministerial meeting. Ten ESA member states signed on to participate in Space Rider, pledging funding that oversubscribed the program.