Controversy surrounding IXV flight cancellation


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Italian officials are suggesting politics or incompetence for the sudden cancellation Wednesday of the November test flight of Europe’s IXV experimental spaceplane.

ESA and CNES officials up to now have either declined to comment or, in the case of ESA, said they were at a loss to explain why a program whose mission profile has not changed in several years is now suddenly stalled for [range] safety issues that in principle should have been aired and resolved long ago.

One official, saying he could not believe that the two agencies simply forgot to evaluate the safety issues, said he preferred to suspect political motives. “Look, we are about to send a spacecraft and lander to Mars, in one year,” this official said. “Europe has rendezvoused with a comet a decade after the [Rosetta comet-chaser] satellite was launched. You want me to believe that somehow the agencies just forgot to evaluate safety? That is too far-fetched. I would rather believe there is some political motive.”

The claim is that no one ever evaluated the range issues in sending the Vega rocket to the east instead of its normal polar orbit trajectory. The Italian officials are suggesting that either the officials who cancelled the mission are incompetent, or that their competition with France within ESA over launch vehicles (Ariane 6 vs Vega) prompted the cancellation.

Europe’s lead launch-vehicle nation is France, which initially balked at participating in the Vega program. A French minister said that in Europe, launch vehicles are French. The French government declined to allow the export, to Italy, of the avionics suite that guides Vega, forcing Italy to develop its own. Italy has since done so and successfully flown it on Vega. As it stands now, one official said, France must accept the idea that with Vega, Italy has led development of a vehicle that at least in principle resembles an intercontinental ballistic missile. “Some people don’t like that,” this official said.

Either way, this cancellation combined with the difficult and extended disagreements within ESA over replacing Ariane 5 suggest that the future of this European partnership is becoming increasingly shaky.

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