ESA's new Space Shuttle: IXV may expedite future missions to Mars

The European Space Agency will launch a new, reusable spacecraft on Wednesday. The IXV is ESA’s first step towards creating spacecraft that can shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station.


NSFW    The European Space Agency’s Vega rocket, which contains the agency’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, is poised for liftoff this Wednesday. The aircraft will launch from Kourou, French Guiana at 13:00 GMT.

After climbing 320 kilometers from Earth, IXV will completely separate from the Vega rocket. The unmanned spacecraft will continue to climb for several more kilometers before coasting in low orbit and initiating its descent back to Earth’s atmosphere.

The aerodynamic shape of IXV provides the lift that flies the aircraft through space. IXV will propel itself back towards Earth with aerodynamic flaps and thrusters, and continue to collect data about its external conditions as it makes its way back to Earth’s surface. IXV will deploy parachutes to slow down its descent before landing in the Pacific Ocean. The entire mission will last 100 minutes.

Reentering Earth’s atmosphere safely is still a major challenge for the aerospace industry as the friction created as a spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere can heat the space vehicle up to extremely high degrees. ESA scientists hope that data collected from Wednesday’s test will bring them one step closer to creating reusable spacecrafts that can shuttle astronauts back and forth from space stations and return from missions to Mars. After NASA retired its Space Shuttle, the only remaining spacecraft that is able to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station is Russia’s Soyuz.
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