Europe’s first experimental ‘spaceplane’ is aiming to be the European Space Agency’s (ESA) latest highly advanced craft to test the limits of how objects can return to a planet from space.
The two-tonne unmanned spaceship is to be known as the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) and will aim to test how the ESA can create future craft that could play a part in future manned missions to Mars and other planets.
While US space agency NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA) have been sending manned craft into space and back for decades, the ESA is less experienced when it comes to sending their own astronauts to space that weren’t on Russian or American craft.
At 1pm UTC today from the ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, the craft will be launched into space on top of a rocket system until it reaches a height of 450km above the Earth’s surface where it will jettison and then begin its rapid descent back from whence it came.
Measuring every single detail during the craft’s descent at a speed of 7.5km/s, ESA control will guide the IXV to a much more gentle landing as it reaches its destination just off the Galápagos Islands, where a ship will be waiting to collect it.
To be absolutely sure all the data from the craft is obtained, the IXV will begin sending the data mid-air the moment it breaks the radio silence that comes when travelling through the Earth’s atmosphere, since given the dangers of space travel, it could lead to a wasted mission if the IXV were to crash into the Atlantic Ocean.
Artist’s view of the IXV mission. Image via ESA–J Huart, 2014
Pride in their work
Speaking to the BBC, the ESA’s project manager Giorgio Tumino said Europe is excellent at going to orbit.
“We have all the launchers, for example. We also have great know-how in operating complex systems in orbit.
“But where we are a bit behind is in the knowledge of how to come back from orbit. So, if we are to close the circle – go to orbit, stay in orbit, come back from orbit – this third leg we need to master, as well as other space-faring nations.”
So if the IXV proves to be a great success, where does the ESA go from there?
The answer is Pride – the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe – that will begin the next stage of creating Europe’s own manned craft in a craft that resembles a NASA space shuttle and in a similar fashion, can land on an aircraft runway.
However, before then, there is still much testing to be undertaken before Pride’s expected launch in 2020.
Watch the IXV take-off live from French Guiana here with the help of the ESA.