ESA and Thales Alenia Space Italia announced an agreement today at the Paris Air & Space Show to begin building the IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle for its mission into space in 2013.
Europe's ambition for a spacecraft to return autonomously from low orbit is a cornerstone for a wide range of space applications, including space transportation, exploration and robotic servicing of space infrastructure.
This goal will be achieved with IXV, which is the next step from the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator flight of 1998. More manoeuvrable and able to make precise landings, IXV is the 'intermediate' element of Europe's path to future developments with limited risks.
Launched into a suborbital trajectory on ESA's small Vega rocket from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, IXV will return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, to test and qualify new European critical reentry technologies such as advanced ceramic and ablative thermal protection.
The 2 t lifting body will attain an altitude of around 450 km, allowing it to reach a velocity of 7.5 km/s on entering the atmosphere. It will collect a large amount of data during its hypersonic and supersonic flight, while it is being controlled by thrusters and aerodynamic flaps.
The craft will then descend by parachute and land in the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.
The detailed design and critical technologies are ready. Today's agreement allows the vehicle's manufacturing, assembly, integration and qualification to begin.
Procurement of the ground network will also begin, including the mission control centre, ground station telemetry kits, transportable antennas and communication network.
Formal approval for signing the contract will come at the end of June from ESA's Industrial Policy Committee.
"Less than two years after the Agency requested industry to quote the activities for IXV, the progress made is remarkable. The achievement of major milestones, such as the Critical Design Review, gives us the confidence to believe that the vehicle will be ready in two years," says Antonio Fabrizi, ESA Director of Launchers.
"Today's agreement confirms that ESA and industry are committed to keep up with the challenging schedule and be ready for flight in 2013."
"Thanks to this agreement, the IXV mission into space has become a near-term reality. Its success will provide Europe with valuable know-how on reentry systems and flight-proven technologies that are necessary to support the Agency's future ambitions, including return missions from low Earth orbit," says Giorgio Tumino, IXV Project Manager.
"In the long term, studies on the evolution of IXV will be consolidated and proposed to Member States, focusing on an affordable reusable craft for operating and servicing payloads in orbit before returning to touch down on land."