(Sen) - A series of descent and landing tests are nearing completion for Europe's latest spacecraft designed for low-Earth orbit, the IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle.
Early next year they will culminate in a full-scale splashdown test that will pave the way for a launch by the European Space Agency's new small Vega rocket in 2014.
IXV, which looks more like a simple shuttle than a capsule, is 4.4 metres long and designed as a prototype for an unmanned craft that will be able to return autonomously from a range of orbital missions.
These will include carrying cargo into space, flights of exploration and robotic servicing of satellites already in orbit. Unlike Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which has made successful visits to the International Space Station before being destroyed on reentry, IXV will return to make a precise landing on Earth.
A number of tests of the IXV's systems and subsystems have already been carried out including dropping it by parachute. One prototype landed safely in the Arizona desert after being dropped from an altitude of 5.7 km.
A third is being built to be dropped by helicopter from a height of 3 km into the Mediterranean Sea off Sardinia.
In 2014, an IXV will blast into space from ESA's launch site at Kourou, French Guiana, atop a Vega rocket. After being launched into a suborbital trajectory that avoids inhabited regions, the spacecraft will fly a hypersonic phase over the Pacific Ocean before parachuting into the sea.
It will reach a height of around 450 km during the experimental flight, which is an attempt to mimic a return to Earth from a low orbit mission.
A prototype of the IXV parachutes to a landing during one of the tests. Credit: ESA
ESA is determined to recover the vehicle and its data records so that they have all the information to hand in the event of any communications failures with ground stations during the test flight. Click here to watch ESA's video of the 2014 mission.
Giorgio Tumino, IXV Project Manager, said: “The IXV mission into space is now becoming a concrete reality. It will provide Europe with credible and unique knowhow on atmospheric reentry system aspects and unknowns and flight-proven technologies essential to support the realisation of the Agency’s future ambitions in the field.”
Vega, which was launched for the first time this year, is an important addition to Europe's rocket arsenal. It now complements ESA's heavy-lifting Ariane launchers and recently introduced, medium-sized, Soyuz newcomers with its ability to put smaller payloads into orbit.
• ESA celebrated the 52nd consecutive launch of its biggest rocket, the Ariane 5, from Kourou yesterday. It was the sixth successful Ariane launch of 2012 and sent two telecommunications satellites, Eutelsat-21B and Star One-C3, heading for geostationary orbit.