How Europe's IXV Space Plane Works (Infographic)
ESA's tiny suborbital testbed vehicle could pave the way for later orbital space planes.
Credit: By Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

The European Space Agency's unmanned IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) is a test vehicle for trying out technologies that could be used in future low-Earth-orbit spacecraft. It will make its first test flight in February 2015. An Arianespace Vega rocket will launch the IXV during the mission.

Europe's IXV Space Plane in Photos

The IXV's 100-minute hypersonic and supersonic flight is a suborbital hop from the Guiana Space Center — Europe's launch complex in French Guiana. The mission will launch the IXV spacecraft over the Eurasian continent and is aimed at a landing zone in the Pacific Ocean, where a recovery ship will fish it from the sea. The craft reaches a maximum altitude of 256 miles (412 kilometers).

The IXV space plane is a wingless spacecraft with a lifting body design, which means the vehicle's aerodynamic shape gives it the lift it needs to stay aloft. Two aft-mounted flaps will steer the spacecraft during its descent.

The spacecraft's belly is covered in protective heat-resistant panels made of carbon fibers that have been woven into a ceramic matrix. An infrared camera and 300 sensors on the heat shield will map the heat flow on IXV's belly during re-entry.

ESA hopes to follow the IXV mission with PRIDE (Program for a Reusable In-Orbit Demonstrator for Europe). PRIDE would deploy satellites before re-entering and landing on a runway.

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