Spaceplanes are by their very nature complex. Being able to move safely from the vacuum of space to earth’s atmosphere is no easy task. We know that testing such vehicles can be dangerous. It was 29 years ago today that the Space Shuttle Challenger, the classic American spaceplane, exploded during its launch.
But research into spaceplane and reentry technology continues. Next month the European Space Agency plans to launch their IXV, Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, to further research. ESA posted this picture today that shows the IXV being encased in its fairings as the agency prepares for their Feb. 11 launch date.
— ESA IXV (@esa_ixv) January 28, 2015
The entire mission, which ESA has outlined in a press release, will only last 100 minutes. A Vega rocket will launch from French Guiana and put the unmanned IXV on a suborbital trajectory. After reaching its peak altitude of 420 kilometers, the spaceplane will begin its reentry phase, slamming back into the atmosphere 27,000 kilometers per hour. During this phase all of the IXV’s sensors will be recording data that will help engineer future spaceplanes.
While the IXV will be using its aerodynamic properties as a ‘lifting body’ to control its descent, the craft will depend on parachutes for the final touchdown in the Pacific Ocean. This differentiates the IXV from other spaceplanes like the Space Shuttle or the X-37B, both of which glide to and land on a runway like a conventional aircraft.
The IXV was originally scheduled for launch in November of 2014, but authorities decided to cancel the test flight. According to SpaceNews, ESA and the French space agency, CNES, had decided that the mission’s flight trajectory, “posed unacceptable risks to people in French Guiana.” An alternative, safer trajectory has been found and will be used in next month’s launch.