European Re-entry Capsule Grounded After Russia Withdraws Launch Offer

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PARIS — A European atmospheric-re-entry capsule that was 10 years in development and whose construction has been completed for months may never get off the ground following cancellation of a low-cost launch aboard a converted Russian missile, the capsule’s builders said June 6.

The European Space Agency (ESA), with a large contribution from the Italian Space Agency (ASI), spent an estimated 50 million euros ($65 million) developing the European Experimental Reentry Test Bed, called Expert, starting in 2002.

Carrying 150 different sensors, the 1.6-meter long, 450-kilogram Expert was designed for launch to an altitude of about 120 kilometers before being released for ballistic descent.

One of its main goals was to test materials for ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), an unmanned, delta-winged plane scheduled for launch in 2014 aboard ESA’s new Vega small-satellite launcher.

After several delays, Expert had been slated for a mid-2012 launch aboard a Russian converted Volna submarine-launched missile from the Pacific Ocean, where it would reach speeds of five kilometers per second. Its parachute system would then deploy and the capsule would land in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East.

ESA and Russia’s Makeyev State Rocket Center in December 2009 announced a contract for the launch, which at the time was scheduled for late 2010. The launch price, at about 2 million euros, was attractive.

Thales Alenia Space Italy, which is Expert’s prime contractor and also prime contractor for the IXV vehicle, has placed Expert in storage here and has not given up hope that it can be launched in time to demonstrate some of the technologies to be used on IXV in 2014.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense apparently said some months ago that they no longer wish to provide Volna as a space launch vehicle,” one Thales Alenia Space Italy official said June 6 during a visit to the company’s facility here. “There may be a way of bartering the launch with the United States, but we are not sure. It is not so easy for small payloads to find affordable launches these days.”

Another Thales Alenia Space Italy official, asked when the company could be ready to ship Expert if ESA found a launcher, answered: “Tomorrow!”

ESA’s Expert program managers were not immediately available for comment on the status of their search for a replacement launcher.

 

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