ESA Successful Reentry Drop Test
June 20, 2013

ESA Boasts Successful Re-Entry Drop Test For One Craft, Highlights Plans For Yet Another

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In attempts to further refine Earth reentry technology, the European Space Agency (ESA) has completed a drop test of an initial experimental craft, according to an official statement.

The built-to-scale model, dubbed the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), was released by a helicopter from about 1.6 miles above the Earth. It descended via parachute until splashing into the Mediterranean Sea. The test drop precedes a flight model test scheduled for next year that will drop the IXV from almost 230 miles above the Earth.

The ESA has said they are looking to develop a vehicle called Pride (Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe) that resembles the unmanned American mini shuttle X-37B. The US craft will launch aboard a rocket, orbit robotically and then make an automated runway landing.

"X-37B is a big vehicle launched on an Atlas rocket, while Pride will be launched on a smaller rocket. It should be a much cheaper mission," said Roberto Provera from French-Italian project leader with the private aerospace company Thales Alenia Space. "The idea of the two vehicles is very similar, but the size and the costs of the projects are very different."

Scheduled for launch in 2014, IXV will use flaps and thrusters to control its descent. A ceramic heatshield is designed to protect the ship from burning up on reentry. The IXV also has a sensor array that will provide European engineers with new insights into the reentry process, which they will then use to design the next wave of space vehicles.

According to the ESA´s official website, the agency plans to use the IXV for the "validation of design tools and improvement of design performance, since the current lack of precise knowledge about phenomena occurring during re-entry induces the need for additional design margins."

The agency also said it plans to use the craft for the "improvement of the guidance algorithms" and "validation of the flight performance of thermal protection materials and complex design solutions."

"We are one year away from launch and Wednesday's drop test at the Salto di Quirra Inter-force Test Range in Sardinia was important to validate this part of the chain," Provera said.

Various reports have stated that the American government once used the X-37B for spying and military intelligence gathering.

Member states of the ESA approved Pride at a recent meeting in Naples, and the agency has said they are currently in discussions with Thales Alenia Space over costs for the project, which are expected to reach $520 million.

According to the space agency, Pride is intended to be a "space plane," less than 17 feet in length and weighing less than 4,200 pounds to make it compatible with the Vega rocket.

"Pride represents the next step after IXV. You see the shape, “ it has wings," Provera said. "The mission envisages several orbits, not just an arc over the globe. And it will land on an airstrip."

Pride is expected to launch no earlier than 2018.