The ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) shot into the sky at 13:40 GMT today from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. It separated from its Vega rocket at an altitude of 340 km. At its highest point, the IXV spaceplane was at 412 km. Check out the video of the launch below.
The most important part came later, during re-entry. The five-meter long craft hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 7.5 km/s at an altitude of 120 km. According to the ESA, these conditions are the same as a vehicle coming back to Earth from low Earth orbit.
From there, the IXV smoothly glided through the atmosphere before parachutes deployed for a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Today’s test is an important milestone milestone towards a viable, reusable spaceplane.
“This mission will teach us a lot about the technologies we need to apply in new launch systems, in particular when we think about reusable systems,” says ESA Director of Launchers Gaele Winters.
The results from today’s tests will continue work for the Program for Reusable In-Orbit Demonstrator (Pride). The end goal is to send a reusable Pride spaceplane on Europe’s Vega light rocket into orbit and then land automatically on a runway.
Space agencies and private companies look at reusability as the stepping stone to further discovering the final frontier. The biggest issue with space missions is cost. Reusing rockets, or in this case a spaceplane, would make the budgets feasible.
Reusability hinges on one capability. Successful re-entry. SpaceX almost succeeded on their first attempt with the Falcon 9 rocket. A second attempt is expected to happen later today.
An ESA press release touches on the importance of re-entry. “Mastering reentry will open a new chapter for ESA. Such a capability is a cornerstone for reusable launcher stages, sample return from other planets and crew return from space, as well as for future Earth observation, microgravity research, satellite servicing and disposal missions.”