ESA gears up for space taxi launch

News editor

The European Space Agency plans to launch a new space vehicle this Wednesday that could potentially challenge existing technology.

Scheduled to launch on a Vega rocket from Kourou in French Guiana the IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) – a so-called Space Taxi – is the first European initiative by ESA to build a smaller alternative to NASA’s now defunct Space Shuttle programme.

The smaller format of IXV is expected to lower costs associated with construction and launch, while the controlled return to Earth means the spacecraft can be re-used.

British input into the project has come from QinetiQ, whose space division has supplied the on-board computer designed to ensure IXV’s fully automated return to Earth, a manoeuvre typically beset with unique challenges.

For example, IXV will be travelling at around 7.5km/s on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, with friction slowing the aircraft. If the angle of entry is too steep the craft will burn up, and if it is too shallow the IXV won’t reach its designated landing place.

As ESA says on its website, ‘accurate guidance, navigation and control is everything’, given that IXV must come in at the right angle and keep within a ‘re-entry corridor’.

An interesting aspect of the IXV is that it has been designed without wings and instead will use its aerodynamic shape to produce lift to fly through the atmosphere on re-entry. Flaps and thrusters will then autonomously steer IXV to splashdown at a precise point in the Pacific Ocean.


ESA’s IXV reentry vehicle mission

Future missions will see IXV come to rest on land and those flights will have been informed by an infrared camera and 300 sensors integrated onto the maiden launch vehicle to map the flow of heat across panels that cover the underside of the vehicle that will have to withstand temperatures of around 1,700ºC on re-entry.

Qinetiq was commissioned for the ESA project by Thales Alenia Space and Alenia-Aermacchi. If successful, IXV could find a myriad of uses including the more economical transport of cargo and astronauts into space and back. Further uses are envisaged including increasing the lifespan of existing satellites, monitoring the Earth, testing new technologies and performing fundamental research in space.

In related territory, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is proposing the launch of satellites from conventional aircraft into low Earth orbit at a cost of $1m per launch. Take a look at the following video for an animated demonstration of how ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) would work.

Engineering students at Brunel University are themselves poised to embark on two space exploration missions as part of their MEng.

They are encouraging anyone with a computer or smartphone to register for free live video streaming of Brunel University London’s first scientific expedition to an altitude of over 100,000 feet.

In a statement Brunel’s Dr Konstantinos Banitsas explained: ‘Those who register their mobile number or email on our website, will be able to watch live streaming of our scientific payload into space. And we’ll send a text alert at launch.

‘Despite the many challenges, we are hopeful that our payload will break the 100,000 ft barrier so people will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space in real time. If the communication link breaks, we will send everybody a video from the beginning of space after a few hours and upon recovery of the payload.’

Adding to the video, the first mission will carry a number of physics experiments designed in conjunction with physicists at the Large Hadron Collider and the Diamond Light Source, that will measure the UV radiation and cosmic rays in different altitudes.

A second mission scheduled for later in February will take a specially designed and built autonomous unmanned glider which will ascend by helium balloon and then be released  at high altitude, all within segregated airspace. The aim is for the glider to descend and safely land itself at a predetermined location.

Still with aviation and news that Prof Dame Ann Dowling CBE is to deliver a free public lecture looking at what generates noise on modern civil aircraft and ways in which the noise is being reduced for the next generation of aircraft.

Set to take place tomorrow at Leicester University, Prof Dowling will talk about the Silent Aircraft Initiative, which aims to develop a conceptual design for an aircraft whose noise would be almost imperceptible outside the perimeter of a daytime urban airport.

The lecture starts tomorrow at 6.30pm in Lecture Theatre 1, Bennett Building, Leicester University. Contact Nancy Holland (email, telephone 0116 252 2547) for tickets.