ESA to launch reusable spacecraft into suborbital flight

Intermediate Experimental Vehicle expected to splash down in Pacific after 1hr 40m

File image of a March 2008 launch from the European Space Agency’s Kourou facility in French Guiana. Photograph: Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images

File image of a March 2008 launch from the European Space Agency’s Kourou facility in French Guiana. Photograph: Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images

 

The European Space Agency has an important launch on Wednesday from its Kourou launch pad in French Guiana.

The launch is a flight-test of a reusable vehicle that will provide service for visits to low earth orbit.

Known as the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle or IXV, it is about the size of a family car and weighs about two tonnes.

A European Vega rocket will lift it onto a suborbital path and then release it 340km up and it will continue to climb to about 412km before beginning its short return journey, the agency said.

The flight should prove the IXV can return from space safely. It is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean after a total mission time of one hour and 40 minutes.

Flight controllers will use thrusters and aerodynamic flaps like a remote control plane to manoeuvre the craft when in full use.

Irish involvement

There is significant Irish involvement in the IXV, according to Tony McDonald, manager of ESA programmes at Enterprise Ireland.

The Dublin subsidiary of US aerospace company Curtiss-Wright, which employs about 140 people, was involved in developing some of the avionics systems controlling the vehicle.

“It is an experimental re-entry vehicle and it will prove the technology works and can be used on future missions,” Mr McDonald said.

“Proof that space technology works is key when you enter the marketplace. You need show the technology works in the space environment.”

Ireland has 50 companies involved in space technology, employing about 2,000 people, he said.

Some are involved in flight activity, but many are also taking technology developed for space and then using it in downstream non-space sectors such as the aircraft industry and medical devices.

Curtiss-Wright has a long history in engineering, given it arose from the original company set up by the Wright brothers after their successful early flights. The company is also involved in “mission critical” data collection as the IXV is put through its paces during the flight.