Italian Firm Hails Test of Unmanned Spacecraft Prototype
Ground personnel look on as a high-altitude balloon hauls the Italian Center for Aerospace Research (CIRA)-built Castor Unmanned Space Vehicle demonstrator into the sky on Feb. 24, 2007.
Credit: G. Russo/CIRA.

An Italian aerospace firm is celebrating the first flight of an unmanned spacecraft prototype, though the experimental vehicle was damaged during the 13-mile (21-kilometer) drop test.

Dubbed Castor, the unmanned space vehicle (USV) prototype reached speeds of up to Mach 1.08 as it plunged towards the Mediterranean Sea from a high-altitude balloon,  according to the craft's handlers at the Italian Center for Aerospace Research (CIRA) in Capua, Italy.

Onboard sensors recorded the complete test flight which took place on Feb. 24. [image]

"The first flight was tremendously important for CIRA since it demonstrated the ability of CIRA engineers to coordinate and conduct the entire mission operation," Gennaro Russo, CIRA's Space Programs lead and USV program manager, told

Castor is a 30-foot (9.2-meter) long Flying Test Bed-1 (FTB-1) with a wingspan of about 13 feet (four meters) and some 500 aerodynamic and structural sensors to measure stresses of transonic flight [image]. The 2,910-pound (1,320-kilogram) vehicle's drop tests are designed to simulate the stresses on a vehicle as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere, CIRA officials said.

During the 70-second flight, Castor successfully performed a nose-up maneuver while flying at transonic speeds between altitudes of about 10 and 6.2 miles (16 to 10 kilometers) [image]. But after that test phase, the Castor's three-stage parachute descent into the Mediterranean Sea occurred at an unexpectedly high speed, severely damaging the experimental vehicle, Russo added.

"Castor will have to be rebuilt," Russo said, adding that it would between 12 and 18 months to reassemble the experimental space plane.

Castor's twin--named Pollux--is under assembly with plans for a space-bound version, the Flying Test Bed-X (FTB-X), to be launched on suborbital or orbital flights atop a European Vega rocket by 2012, CIRA officials said of the $234 million (179 million Euro) project [image].  

The data and lessons learned from Castor's first flight, however, could allow CIRA engineers to modify Pollux for a more complex drop test debut-- dubbed DTFT-2--later this year.

"In particular, we feel possible that DTFT-2 will reach a maximum Mach of 1.3-1.4, executing a complex nose-up and turn maneuver, followed by an approach flight in order to make the parachute system opening the easiest possible," Russo said, adding that the plan depends on the ongoing analysis.

  • IMAGES: The X-Planes (Part 2, Part 3)
  • MULTIMEDIA: The New Space Race
  • VIDEO: Virgin Galactic: Let the Journey Begin
  • VIDEO: How to Build a Tour-Ship for Space
  • Experience the Future of Flight