A success. On 11th February, thanks to the European Space Agency (ESA) prototype space ‘plane, called the "IXV" (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle), measuring five metres (16,5 feet) long by two metres (6,5 feet) wide, Europe demonstrated that it is now capable of returning craft to Earth from space.
Carried by a Vega rocket, launched from Kourou, French Guiana, the space ‘plane, built by Thales Alenia Space, began its journey. After an ascent lasting 18 minutes, the spacecraft separated from the rocket and reached the 412 km (255 miles) suborbital flight altitude. Then came the hardest part, that of returning to Earth at an incredible 27,000 km/h (16,800 mph), but above all re-entering the atmosphere safely.
Wingless, but controlled by two tail flaps, the outer shell of this strange aircraft, had to be capable of withstanding a re-entry temperature of 1,700° C, followed by a smooth parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean; but in the end, everything went as planned.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, General Director – European Space Agency (ESA)
“The advantage of this vehicle, is that, at the moment of re-entry, we are more accurate than with just the capsules. That also means that we are moving a step closer to being able to re-utilise this type of vehicle; which is something vital for the future of space activities.”
So what comes next after the success of this first flight costing 170 million euros ? Nothing definite yet ! Firstly, it will require the next six weeks, to analyze the data recorded by the 300 on-board sensors. The vessel could then be used to bring samples of other planets back to earth, equipment from the International Space Station (ISS), or conduct research on microgravity.
To carry passengers, we will have to wait a little longer because the vehicle size will need to be bigger, therefore requiring a much larger rocket, such as the future Ariane 6, for example. So there are still a few years’ work ahead before the European Space Agency (ESA) could serve as a "taxi service" for astronauts.