An “intermediate” phase of a long-term effort to build their own space vehicle, the IXV represents an approach reminiscent of America’s X-planes of the 1940s-1960s, but with the added component of building Europe’s capacity for long-term space operations. This research vehicle will examine techniques and technologies essential for a successful aerodynamic re-entry vehicle such as advanced thermal protection systems, vehicle control techniques, and avionics. The program will also validate ground test facilities and fabrication techniques, an essential component of building a manned space program. Since the ESA lacks direct hypersonic or reentry experience in an operational environment, this process will give them invaluable information. Given their test of a re-entry capsule in 1998, this extension of re-entry flight testing makes sense, especially considering the fact that they have been pursuing on-the-ground research and testing of many of the requisite technologies for lifting re-entry. The IXV will start with approaches we know and edge into technologies and techniques we have yet to master, providing a solid springboard for the research and operational space vehicles to follow.
One of the innovative characteristics of this system is that internal space is available for parties than wish to send an experiment up; this allows the vehicle to provide much more flight test information while sharing the cost with other organizations. Another is the wide range of technologies that will be investigated: the vehicle’s experiment payload may include UHTC’s (ultra high temperature ceramics), metal-matrix ceramics, smart thermal protection, LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging, also known as laser radar), and active structural monitoring. Over 50 proposals have been put forth, but not all of these can be accommodated.
The mission will be launched from a Vega three-stage rocket with liquid-fueled upper stage designed to lift small satellites into orbit. (While smaller than its Ariane cousins, it is also less expensive.) During entry, the vehicle trajectory will be controlled via reaction-control thrusters and paddle-style aileron-elevators. IXV will acquire twenty minutes’ worth of data during its return to the surface. When it descends to a low enough altitude, parachutes will deploy, bringing it to a rest in the ocean. If successful, this achievement will put the ESA in a very exclusive club.