Photo credit: ESA-J.Huart
An automobile-sized prototype space plane is ready for an around-the-world test flight to demonstrate technologies to fly on a future orbital space plane, reusable rocket stages, and interplanetary sample return probes.
The $170 million Intermediate Experimental Vehicle is set for launch aboard a Vega rocket from the Guiana Space Center, a European-run space base on the northern coast of South America.
Its flight will last 102 minutes from takeoff to splashdown. The lifting body spacecraft will reach a maximum altitude of about 260 miles on an arcing suborbital trajectory before slamming back into Earth’s atmosphere at 7.5 kilometers per second, or about 16,800 mph.
The IXV will use two electrically-actuated flaps and rocket thrusters control its descent. GPS navigation will help guide the demonstrator toward a parachute-assisted splashdown in the equatorial Pacific Ocean nearly 3,000 miles west of Colombia.
The timeline below highlights major events during the mission.
Date source: ESA/Arianespace
The Vega rocket’s first stage P80 solid rocket motor ignites and powers the 98-foot-tall booster off the launch pad 0.3 seconds later. The P80 first stage motor generates a maximum of 683,000 pounds of thrust.
T+0:00:31: Mach 1
The Vega rocket surpasses the speed of sound as it soars on an easterly trajectory from French Guiana.
T+0:00:53: Maximum Dynamic Pressure
Flying at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet, the rocket passes through the phase of maximum aerodynamic pressure.
T+0:01:52: First Stage Separation
Having consumed its 194,000 pounds of solid propellant, the 9.8-foot-diameter P80 first stage motor is jettisoned at an altitude of about 33 miles. One second later, Vega’s Zefiro 23 second stage motor fires to begin its 102-second burn.
T+0:03:35: Second Stage Separation
The Zefiro 23 motor burns out and jettisons.
T+0:03:50: Third Stage Ignition
The Vega rocket’s Zefiro 9 motor ignites for the third stage burn.
T+0:04:02: Fairing Jettison
The Vega’s 8.5-foot-diameter payload fairing is released as the rocket ascends into space.
T+0:06:37: Third Stage Separation
The Zefiro 9 third stage shuts down and separates.
T+0:08:00: AVUM Ignition
The Vega rocket’s Attitude and Vernier Module, or fourth stage, ignites for the first time. The AVUM burns hydrazine fuel with an RD-869 engine provided by Yuzhnoye of Ukraine.
T+0:13:49: AVUM Shutdown
The Vega’s AVUM fourth stage is turned off after a 5-minute, 49-second burn to place the IXV on the proper suborbital trajectory before separation. Two more AVUM maneuvers occur after IXV separation to de-orbit the stage on a path safely away from the space plane.
T+0:17:49: IXV Separation
The IXV re-entry demonstrator separates from the Vega rocket’s AVUM fourth stage.
T+0:20:34: Thrusters Primed
The IXV’s four 400 Newton (90-pound-thrust) thrusters are primed to maneuver the spacecraft into the proper orientation for re-entry. The milestone occurs while the IXV passes over Africa in range of ground stations in Libreville, Gabon, and Malindi, Kenya.
T+0:31:00: Maximum Altitude
The IXV reaches a maximum altitude of about 412 kilometers (256 miles).
The IXV re-enters the atmosphere at an altitude of 120 kilometers (74 miles) and a velocity of 7.5 kilometers per second (16,777 mph) while 7,300 kilometers (4,536 miles) uprange from the landing site. The craft uses four thrusters and two flaps mounted on the rear of the IXV to execute a series of S-turn banking maneuvers.
T+1:22:00: AOS of IXV
A tracking antenna on the Nos Aries recovery ship acquires the signal from IXV after a re-entry communications blackout. The IXV begins downlinking data recorded by on-board sensors.
T+1:29:00: Main Parachute Deployment
The IXV’s main parachute deploys to slow the spacecraft’s descent to the Pacific Ocean to about 6 meters per second (13 mph).
The IXV splashes down in the Pacific Ocean at approximately 3 degrees north latitude, 123 degrees west longitude. The Nos Aries recovery ship staffed by ESA and Thales Alenia Space personnel will be on standby nearly 30 kilometers (18 miles) away to move in and retrieve the spaceship.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.