Recycling seems to be all the rage in spaceflight these days. While Elon Musks SpaceX is wrestling to get their first stage boosters to return safely to a platform at sea, the European Space Agency ESA this week successfully tested a space shuttle of its own: a prototype of a re-usable craft called IXV, for Intermediate Experimental Vehicle.
Re-entry of space vehicles (think Apollo, Soyuz) has traditionally been a rather crude affair: you just drop them in a calculated way. Then you have to wait and see if you did it right, for there isn't much you can do in the way of steering. Drop them too steeply and they burn up; drop them at too shallow an angle and they may bounce back. Of course space shuttles were the exception to this rule. They were designed like airplanes and could land on a runway. But the shuttle program has been terminated and the shuttles themselves are museum pieces now.
IXV has some steering capability built in, making re-entry a lot less risky. The vehicle is 5 metres long and two metres wide, weighs about two tons and is shaped more or less like a slice out of an airplane wing. So although it has no real wings, the body itself acts like one, generating lift. There are steering flaps at the back and some thrusters as well.
Last Wednesday ESA launched a demonstration from Kourou, French Guiana. Here's a great time lapse video of the preparations for launch:
The IXV was launched to a height of slightly more than 400 km - enough to return at a realistic re-entry speed - before immediately diving back and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean by parachute about 100 minutes after launch. The highest velocity it reached was 7.5 kms per second, at a height of 120 km on the way back. The launch served as a test for the steering mechanisms, and also for various materials for a heat shield, such as carbon fiber but also a natural material like cork. ESA made a video report of the flight, including an animation of the re-entry process (when of course there were no cameras around):
'We believe the return capability is running behind,' IXV's project manager GiorgioTumino told Spaceflight Now. 'We never closed the loop on the capability to go to orbit, operate in orbit and come back from orbit. The first objective of the IXV mission is we need to gain experience on these type of missions — the capability to return from orbit.'
IXV should be a step towards developing a re-usable space plane, but ironically it won't be re-used itself. Last week's 150 million euro test (not counting launch costs) will remain IXV's only flight. The test results will be used in developing its successor, an ESA space plane called PRIDE (Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator for Europe). Pride should be able to touch down on land, making recovery and re-use still easier.
IXV will be transported to ESA's technical center at Noordwijk, the Netherlands, for technical examinations. Later this year it will be on display for the public.
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.