There’s no denying that the Space Shuttle was an unique design being the only spacecraft that was capable aerodynamic flight after reentry. That capability, initially born out of military requirements for one-orbit trips that required significant downrange flight, came at a high cost in both financial and complexity terms dashing any hopes it had of being the revolutionary gateway space it was intended to be. A lot of the designs and engineering were sound though and so it should come as little surprise to see elements of it popping up in other, more modern spacecraft designs. The most recent of those (to come to my attention at least) is the European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, a curious little craft that could be Europe’s ticket to delivering much more than dry cargo to space.
Whilst this might not be an almost exact replica like the X-37B is it’s hard to deny that the IXV bears a lot of the characteristics that many of us associated with the Space Shuttle. The rounded nose, blackened bottom, white top and sleek profile are all very reminisicent of that iconic design but that’s where the similarities end. The IXV is a tiny little craft weighing not a lot more than your typical car and lacking the giant wings that allowed the Shuttle to fly so far. This doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of flight however as the entire craft is a lifting body, capable of generating lift comparable to a winged aircraft. Steering is accomplished 2 little paddles attached to the back enabling the IXV to keep its thermal protective layer facing the right direction upon reentry. For now the IXV is a completely robotic craft with little room to spare save for a few on board experiments.
Much like the X-37B the IXV is being designed as a test bed for the technologies that the ESA wants to use in upcoming craft for future missions. Primarily this relates to its lifting body profile and the little flaps it uses for attitude control, things which have a very sound theoretical basis but haven’t seen many real world applications. If all goes according to plan the IXV will be making its maiden flight in October this year, rocketing up to the same altitude as the International Space Station, nearly completing an orbit and then descending back down to earth. Whilst it’s design would make you think it’d then be landing at an air strip this model will actually end up in the Pacific ocean, using its aerodynamic capabilities to guide it to a smaller region than you could typically achieve otherwise. It also lacks any landing gear to speak of, relying instead on parachutes to cushion its final stages of descent.
Future craft based on the IXV platform won’t be your typical cargo carrying ISS ferries however as the ESA is looking to adapt the platform to be an orbital platform, much like the Shuttle was early on in its life. The downrange capability is something that a lot of space fairing nations currently lack with most relying on Russian craft or pinning their hopes on the capabilities of the up and coming private space industry. This opens up a lot of opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments that might be cost prohibitive to complete on the ISS or even ones that might be considered to be too dangerous. There doesn’t appear to be any intention to make an IXV variant that will carry humans into space however, although there’s already numerous lifting body craft in various stages of production that are aiming to have that capability.
It’s going to be interesting to see where the ESA takes the IXV platform as it definitely fills a niche that’s currently not serviced particularly well. Should they be able to transform the IXV from a prototype craft into a full production vehicle within 3 years that would be mightily impressive but I have the feeling that’s a best case scenario, something which is rare when designing new craft. Still it’s an interesting craft and I’m very excited to see what missions it will end up flying.