Europe’s IXV Demonstrator Launches, Lands, What Next?

Europe’s IXV, or Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, a small re-entry test vehicle, launched this morning aboard a Vega booster from the European spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana. Liftoff, in what was the fourth flight of the three stage solid fueled Vega small launch vehicle, occurred at 13:30 GMT.

Liftoff of IXV/Vega 4 Credit : ESA

Liftoff of IXV/Vega 4
Credit : ESA


After reaching a maximum altitude of 412 kilometers, the unmanned spaceplane packed with sensors re-entered the atmosphere with an energy equivalent to a return from orbit, gathering information on the hyper and supersonic flight regimes. After a controlled glide, the IXV deployed its parachute for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of the Galapagos Islands.

Designed as a test vehicle for future European crewed spacecraft or RLV projects, the IXV program exists in something of a vacuum, although the European Space Agency cast a wide net advertising its possible applications saying:

“Such a capability is a cornerstone for reusable launcher stages, sample return from other planets and crew return from space, as well as for future Earth observation, microgravity research, satellite servicing and disposal missions.”

IXV: Image Credit ESA

IXV: Image Credit ESA


For all that apparent promise, there are no more flights planned for the 5 meter long, 2 ton wingless lifting body which used body flaps and small rocket engines for maneuvering, although Italy is pushing a study currently underway to consider developing the Pride, or Programme for Reusable In-Orbit Demonstrator for Europe. Pride is a reusable spaceplane which would also launch on Vega. That should perhaps come as no surprise, as Italy builds the Vega rocket, which serves as the smallest of the three launcher family which also includes the heavy lift Ariane V and the medium duty Soyuz 2.

In fact, from a NewSpace perspective, today’s mission bore many of the hallmarks of the particularly European love affair with overly complicated multinational government/industry collaborations which achieve technical proficiency, but seem to be having difficulty accepting changes in the space business environment.  For example, the Vega launcher, which took more than two decades and cost nearly $1 billion US to develop, appears increasingly vulnerable to a new crop of small satellite launchers, even as its intended market, Earth observing satellites weighing as much as 3,300 lbs., is being upended by much smaller and increasingly capable cubesats like the fleet of “Doves” being deployed by Planet Labs.

And then there is the constant political bickering which is the inevitable result when multiple nations and bureaucracies are involved in a project. Today’s launch was originally to have taken place last November, but was delayed after the French space agency CNES, denied a launch permit to the European Space Agency over range concerns.

Finally, in case you did not see the launch broadcast, consider yourself fortunate, as like many European missions, it was immediately followed by a list of dignitaries delivering self congratulatory speeches which drug on nearly longer than the 100 minute experiment itself. One might speculate that we will know Europe has begun to enter the NewSpace era in earnest at whatever point this particular practice is no longer relevant. Based on this recent article in Space News however, in which the head of the European Space Agency Jean-Jacques Dordain (who happened to be one of the speakers today) complains about having to play “Simon Says” with SpaceX, that may not be anytime soon.

Translation: “how much nicer it would be if we could just return the pace of innovation to the manageable level it has been for the last 40 years or so, and get back to our ministerial meetings.”

Posted in: Space Planes

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