Europe Prepares Two Atmospheric Re-entry Test Vehicles

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TURIN, Italy — Two atmospheric re-entry test vehicles are being prepared here for launches in 2011 and 2013 as part of a program to prepare Europe for future missions that have yet to be defined.

The two vehicles — the 450-kilogram Expert suborbital capsule and the 1,815-kilogram Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) — have both faced delays due to financing and doubts about whether they fit into Europe’s current long-term strategy. But they now are apparently on track, according to officials from Thales Alenia Space Italy, which is prime contractor for both.

The capsule-shaped Expert is in final integration, its thermal protection to be added in January. It is scheduled to be shipped to Russia in April, in time for a midsummer launch aboard the Russian military’s submarine-launched Volna system, a converted ballistic missile. It will follow a ballistic trajectory for its 17-minute flight, reaching an altitude of around 100 kilometers and a re-entry speed of about 5 kilometers per second.

Expert has a budget of about 50 million euros ($68 million).

Also under construction here is ESA’s IXV lifting-body re-entry vehicle, being developed as part of the agency’s future launcher studies program. IXV, which is also substantially behind its original schedule, is tentatively slated for a launch in 2013 aboard Europe’s new Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher.

The IXV budget, which has been paid in several tranches since 2006, is about 100 million euros. A critical design review of the system is expected to be completed by early 2011, to be followed by full vehicle construction starting in the spring of 2011. Currently it is slated to fly on the fifth Vega launch. Vega, whose schedule has slipped several times, is now expected to make its inaugural flight in mid-2011.

The 5-meter-long IXV features two body flaps and is expected to reach a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second during a 21-minute flight that will reach an altitude of about 430 kilometers. After launch from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, it will make a soft landing in the Pacific Ocean to be recovered.

Europe’s last re-entry experiment was the successful Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator (ARD) in 1998. The Expert program was considered a priority at a time when ESA thought it would be moving quickly toward transforming its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) space station cargo freighter into a vehicle capable of returning to Earth. Those plans have not been confirmed.

But Thales Alenia Space officials said entry, descent and landing technology is a key component to just about any space exploration scenario.

“If Italy and Europe are going to be among the leaders of the new international exploration program, we need to master re-entry,” said Luigi Maria Quaglino, the company’s senior vice president for space infrastructures and transportation. “This is not limited to ATV modifications.”