ESA’s experimental space plane gearing up for November debut

by Chris Bergin

The European Space Agency (ESA) Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) is enjoying a stay in Holland ahead of being shipped to Kourou, French Guiana to meet up with her Vega launch vehicle. The IXV space plane is in the Netherlands for a “shaking”, simulating the vibrations and stresses she can expect to endure atop of Vega during the November launch.


The IXV will demonstrate Europe’s advanced re-entry technologies and integrated system design capabilities, via a reference mission that calls for a lift off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, aboard a Vega launch vehicle.

The mission will conclude via a fully automatically controlled re-entry, descent and landing in the Pacific Ocean.

2014-07-03 19_33_41-ESA - Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) HR photosThe spacecraft is about the size of an average car and weighs almost two tons when fully fuelled.

ESA managers note that knowledge gained from IXV may lead to building an affordable reusable craft capable of operating modular payloads for multiple applications in various orbits, before it returns to Earth to touch down on a conventional runway.

Applying such a vehicle into missions for ESA could include the servicing of orbital infrastructures and future generations of satellites, within ESA’s tight budget.

She could also be used for microgravity experiments, Earth sciences, Earth observation and robotic exploration.

Preparations for the debut flight have been ongoing since 2007, when contracts were signed to bring the space plane to life. The spacecraft is now at the business end of her flow toward lauch, following IXV integration and qualification work in Turin, Italy.

2014-07-03 19_29_09-Space in Images - 2014 - 06 - IXV arrives for testing Jun2014Following a road trip, the space plane is now enjoying a stay in the Netherlands for IXV environmental testing that will continue until September.

The test requirement saw the space plane arrive via truck at ESA’s Technical Centre in Noordwijk – ahead of the first batch of testing that is scheduled for three weeks, starting on July 11.

The IXV will be bolted down on to a ‘shaker table’ to experience the heavy vibrations of launch. There will also be three days of ‘separation shock’ testing, mimicking the moment the craft separates from the Vega rocket.

2014-07-03 19_31_33-ESA - Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) HR photosAt an altitude of 320 km, a pyrotechnic device will fire to open a clamp band for springs to push IXV away from the upper stage.

Mission planners must be sure that she can withstand the mechanical shock of the pyrotechnic detonation, ESA noted.

Launched into a suborbital trajectory from Kourou, the IXV will return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, allowing for the testing and qualification of new critical technologies for future reentry vehicle concepts.

(L2 Link to 15 Presentations on IXV)

During it mission, the vehicle will attain an altitude of around 450 km, allowing it to reach a velocity of 7.5 km/s.

She will then enter the atmosphere and collect a large amount of data during its hypersonic and supersonic flight, while she is being controlled by thruster firings and her aerodynamic flaps.

Eleven days of testing will be devoted to checking that all of the onboard subsystems work as planned after withstanding the simulated extremes of both space and atmosphere.

Following the conclusion of her first trip into space, IXV will descend by parachute and land in a remote region of the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.

2014-07-03 19_27_48-Space in Images - 2014 - 06 - IXV hoisted aboardThe Nos Aries and crew – tasked with recovering the IXV spacecraft – have already undertaken a practice run off the coast of Tuscany, Italy – where they retrieved a prototype from the water, the same model flown last year in a splashdown test off the east coast of Sardinia.

“A crew from the Italian company NERI were operating the recovery ship Nos Aries while the prototype was carefully hoisted aboard and into its container,” ESA noted.

“This model will now be taken to ESA’s Technical Centre in the Netherlands for display.”

2014-07-03 19_32_39-ESA - Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) HR photosThis ship will have an important role to play throughout the mission, releasing weather balloons to check the wind conditions over the Pacific to provide information on IXV’s descent path.

The crew will also receive the flight data from IXV’s 300 sensors during descent and then pick up the beacon signals to pinpoint the location of the craft after splashdown.

Divers on speedboats will approach the floating craft and then stand back as robotic sniffers check for residual propellant fumes, prior to her recovery.

(Images via ESA and L2’s IXV Section, including large amounts of documentation and images. To join L2, click here:

Related Articles