ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) is now enjoying the final leg of her mission, onboard the Nos Aries recovery ship. The vehicle – part of ESA’s future spaceplane aspirations – was plucked out of the Pacific Ocean at the conclusion of her suborbital adventure this month and is now being shipped back to her home in Italy, with arrival in Genoa set for the end of March – allowing for post-mission evaluations that will take place in Turin.
It’s been a long road for the little spaceplane, with the initial contracts for the mission signed back in 2007, originally targeting a 2010 launch.
The IXV was designed to demonstrate Europe’s advanced re-entry technologies and integrated system design capabilities, building on the Advanced Reentry Demonstrator (ARD) mission that was launched on the third flight of the Ariane 5 in October, 1998.
At the center of IXV’s technology demonstration goals is the ambition to build affordable reusable vehicles capable of operating modular payloads for multiple applications in various orbits – with missions concluding with a touch down on a conventional runway.
Should the technology be realized into an operational vehicle, ESA claim it could foster a European capability for servicing of orbital infrastructures, conducting microgravity experiments and provide Earth science and observation missions.
Importantly – especially in this fiscally challenged era – the missions would be relatively inexpensive.
The key to these aspirations revolved around a successful flight of the IXV. A mission failure would have sent engineers back to the drawing board.
The Vega rocket performed admirably – making it four from four for the baby of the Arianespace fleet – bidding farewell to the IXV around 17 minutes and 59 seconds after liftoff.
Working from a perigee of 76 kilometres (47.2 miles, 41.0 nautical miles) and an apogee of 416 kilometres (258 miles, 225 nautical miles) at an inclination of 5.4 degrees, IXV used her Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters to control attitude as she ascended to apogee before descending towards the big test of reentry.
Enduring the expected communications blackout, controllers nervously awaited acquisition of signal – showing the vehicle had survived re-entry – and confirmation the spacecraft had ejected the panel covering the parachute bay.
This was followed by the all-important deployment of a pilot parachute followed by the first of two drogue chutes.
All went to plan, with the first drogue separating, pulling out a subsonic drogue chute which continued to slow the vehicle, ahead of the deployment of the main parachute.
IXV descended to a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, just west of the Galapagos islands, one hour and forty minutes after launch.
Aided by flotation devices, the IXV awaited recovery by the Nos Aries crew.
Divers in speedboats first approached the floating craft and checked for residual propellant fumes.
Once the all-clear was given, the crew began the recovery – working from procedures that had already practised off the coast of Tuscany, Italy – where they retrieved a prototype from the water.
Using a crane, the spaceplane was lifted on to the deck of the ship.
Work on the ship has included initial inspections – showing the TPS to be in good shape – along with the cleaning of the vehicle’s fuel tank.
The Nos Aries is now on the long journey home to Italy and is set to arrive in Genoa towards the end of March. IXV, packed inside a container, will then travel by road to Turin for inspection and further analysis.
Those post-mission inspections will provide pathfinder data towards the next step in the ESA’s ambitions.
“IXV has opened a new chapter for ESA in terms of reentry capabilities and reusability,” noted Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General.
“ESA and its Member States, together with European space industry, are now ready to take up new challenges in several fields of space transportation, in future launchers, robotic exploration or human spaceflight.”
ESA leaders have already authorised development to begin on the IXV’s successor: the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe, or PRIDE.
This new vehicle will be a step up from IXV and serve as an orbital platform to test in orbit technologies for multiple applications not only for future European Space Transportation, such as future reusable launchers stages, but also for Earth Observation, Robotic Exploration and Microgravity Experimentation.
ESA claim the PRIDE spaceplane would be comparable – albeit smaller and cheaper – to the USAF’s X-37B.
It would also be a civilian spacecraft by nature, unlike the X-37B. However, both spacecraft do have several similarities, such as how they end their missions – with a landing on a conventional runway.
For now, ESA are celebrating the successes of the IXV.
“This was a short mission with big impact,” added Giorgio Tumino, IXV project manager.
“The cutting-edge technology we validated, and the data gathered from the sensors aboard IXV, will open numerous opportunities for Europe to develop ambitious plans in space transportation for a multitude of applications.”
(Images via ESA and L2’s IXV Section, including large amounts of documentation and images.)
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