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ESA all set to launch, test re-entry of its wingless space plane

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European Space Agency (ESA) has revealed its preparedness for the launch of its experimental “space plane” dubbed Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) on Wednesday. ESA’s car-sized, wingless vessel is being tested for re-entry and could build a platform on which design of future reusable spacecraft are based on.

One of the major challenges in aerospace industry is the safe re-entry of spacecrafts – a challenge that has become all the more difficult after NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in Earth`s atmosphere in February 2003, killing all seven crew.

Returning spacecrafts are slowed down as they enter Earth’s atmosphere due to friction, but this friction also causes the temperatures of the outside of the spacecraft to reach scorching levels.

Another problem is to do with the re-entry – if the angle is too steep the craft will burn up, and if its too shallow it may bounce off the atmosphere or pierce through, but completely miss its landing target.

ESA is looking to test all these conditions through its (IXV) when its launched on a Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, 11 February 2015 at 13:00 GMT (14:00 CET).

“We are able to go (to space), we are able to stay in orbit, what we want to learn today is to close the loop, to return from orbit, and this is one of the most complex disciplines in space activity,” IXV programme manager Giorgio Tumino told AFP.

The spacecraft will fly fully autonomously, and will be closely monitored from its Mission Control Centre located at the Advanced Logistics Technology Engineering Centre in Turin, Italy. Signals from the spacecraft will be tracked by two ground stations in Africa and by an antenna on the recovery ship, Nos Aries, ESA said in a press release.

IXV Artist's view

One of the key features of the IXV is its innovative body shape, which according to designers will balance reliability with manoeuvrability. IXV’s design is kind of a mash-up of current flat-bottomed captures landing with parachutes and NASA’s retired winged Space Shuttle. It has an aerodynamic shape that creates the lift needed to fly, but without wings — called a “lifting body”.

Four thrusters and two hind steering flaps will stabilise and angle the craft, while ceramic thermal protection panels will shield it from temperatures up to 1,700 degrees Celsius (3,092 degrees Fahrenheit) on reentry — hot enough to melt metal.

After separation from Vega at about 340 km altitude 18 minutes into flight, it will coast up to a maximum height of about 420 km. Next, it will begin reentry, recording data from a large number of conventional and advanced sensors.

The entry speed of 27,000 km/h (7.5 km/s) creates the same conditions as those for a vehicle returning from low orbit. It will navigate through the atmosphere within its reentry corridor before descending, slowed by a multistage parachute, for a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean some 100 minutes after liftoff.

“The IXV mission will test cutting-edge system and technology aspects to provide Europe with an independent reentry capability, and a building block for reusable space transportation systems,” said an ESA statement.

Mastering autonomous return from orbit and soft landing will open a new chapter, ESA added. “Since NASA retired its Space Shuttle, Russia`s Soyuz is the only spacecraft that can ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station. Private company Space X`s Dragon is the only reentry cargo craft.”