ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) spaceplane is finally into its final processing flow towards launch, following the loading of propellants and work to encapsulate the vehicle inside its payload fairing. The launch – atop a Vega rocket – is set for February 11, following a decision to alter the launch trajectory due to safety concerns.
The IXV is classed as a pathfinder, potentially leading to affordable reusable vehicles capable of operating modular payloads for multiple applications in various orbits, before returning to Earth for a touchdown on a conventional runway.
Applying such a vehicle into missions for ESA could include the servicing of orbital infrastructures and future generations of satellites.
The debut mission has been seriously delayed, with the initial contracts – signed in 2007 – targeting a 2010 launch.
However, the wait should finally be over, as the vehicle ended integration and qualification work in Turin, Italy – and headed towards the final element of the launch flow.
This came after one additional delay was suffered during the flow when – on October 23 – safety concerns were noted for the launch trajectory out of the launch site at the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
For this mission, instead of heading north into a polar orbit, as on previous flights, Vega will head eastwards to release the spaceplane into a suborbital path reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The concerned – related to the over flight of the solid second and third stages – required additional analysis, resulting in an alternative trajectory being selected.
This mainly resulted in just a slight change of three degrees relative to the north during ascent for the Vega rocket.
Following liftoff from the Guiana Space Center, the powered phase of the first three stages of Vega lasted six minutes and 14 seconds.
Vega utilizes a P80 advanced solid propellant first stage motor, featuring a novel filament-wound casing structure, utilizing new-generation, high-quality production techniques.
Its second and third stages – designated Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9, respectively – also use solid propellant motors, while the launcher is topped off by the bi-propellant liquid upper stage (called AVUM – Attitude and Vernier Upper Module).
A two-piece fairing will open to release the spaceplane at an altitude of 320 km, during third stage flight.
Notably, the propellant loading and encapsulation were two major milestones that have now been completed, per IVX update information.
IXV will coast to up to 420 km and then begin its reentry phase, recording a vast amount of data from a large number of conventional and advanced sensors.
The entry speed of 7.5 km/s at an altitude of 120 km will create the same conditions as those for a vehicle returning from low orbit.
The IXV will glide through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds to test new European reentry technologies before parachutes deploy to slow the descent for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.
The mission will last 100 minutes from liftoff to splashdown.
The Nos Aries recovery vessel 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 in a splashdown test off the east coast of Sardinia.
The recovery vessel is now stationed in Flamenco Island Anchorage in Panama, ahead of receiving ESA’s recovery team that will board on Saturday. The ship will then set sail on the last leg of its journey to the recovery spot.
The crew will have a major role throughout mission, releasing weather balloons to check the wind conditions over the Pacific to provide information on IXV’s descent path, ahead of receiving flight data from the 300 sensors during descent.
Following splashdown, divers in speedboats will then approach the floating craft and then stand back as robotic sniffers check for residual propellant fumes, prior to her recovery.
The IVX will then be lifted on to the vessel in preparation for a return to Europe for post flight inspections and further analysis.
(Images via ESA and L2’s IXV Section, including large amounts of documentation and images. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)