Europe's Answer To the Space Shuttle Is Almost Ready For Prime Time

The European Space Agency's next-gen re-entry vehicle is taking shape. Called IXV, it could pave the way to Europe's first independent astronaut mission. This scaled-down prototype, which is scheduled for its first automated launch and re-entry later this year, is deliberately modeled after the nose of NASA's Space Shuttle.

Image: ESA via New Scientist.

The ESA has been working on IXV, or Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, for the past five years. It utilizes a lifting body arrangement with no wings and two movable flaps for re-entry flight control. Once it's ready to come back to Earth, it will manoeuvre to a nose-high altitude like the Space Shuttle. It will land via the benefit of parachutes onto a water body (namely the Pacific Ocean).

Here's how the whole thing will go down once it's fully developed and ready to go:

The first launch of the robotic test probe will happen in October from Kourou in French Guiana. It will reach an altitude of 412 kilometers (the same height as the ISS) and make one planetary rotation before re-entry.

Europe's Answer To the Space Shuttle Is Almost Ready For Prime Time

Recently, New Scientist's Jacob Aron was invited to visit the facility in Italy where the IXV is being developed. He writes:

Peering inside, I reckon there's just enough space for a curled-up stowaway, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Instead of being a people carrier, this craft is designed to test two technologies vital to future missions: a heat shield and two rear flaps that move up and down to provide manoeuvrability. When it launches in October from Kourou in French Guiana it will reach an altitude of 412 kilometres – about the same as the ISS – and fly almost entirely round the planet before re-entry. The craft is robotic and will adjust its trajectory on the way to splashdown to within a 20-kilometre-diameter circle in the Pacific Ocean, where a ship will be waiting to recover it.

If that test is successful, ESA hopes to build a new space craft that exploits the IXV technology. With bureaucratic wrangles ahead, it is not clear what form that craft will take, but a space plane that is based on the IXV but lands on the ground like an aeroplane, not in water, would fit the bill, and could be built within three years, says Tumino. It would not be crewed to start off with, but it would be able to refuel and could be used to maintain satellites and carry out microgravity experiments at much lower cost than on the ISS.

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