Test flight of Europe’s first prototype space plane has been rescheduled


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The competition heats up: Preparations have resumed for a February 11 test flight of a European prototype space plane, initially scheduled for November but cancelled at the last minute because managers suddenly discovered its launch path was going to go over land.

The launch trajectory of the IXV space plane on a suborbital trajectory will differ from the Vega rocket’s previous flights, which flew north from the space center with satellites heading for high-inclination polar orbits. The launch of IXV will head east from Vega’s launch pad, and the geometry of the French Guiana coastline means it will fly over land in the first phase of the launch sequence.

Officials said they slightly adjusted the launch track to alleviate the the safety concern.

The four-stage Vega rocket was stacked on the launch pad at the Guiana Space Center, and the IXV spacecraft was about to be fueled with hydrazine maneuvering propellant when officials announced the delay in October. A ship tasked with retrieving the space plane after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean had already left port in Italy when news of the launch delay was released.

I remain suspicious about the cause of the delay in November. How could they not have known about the launch trajectory until the last second? Instead, I suspect it occurred because of politics higher up in ESA related to Italian, German, and French tensions over the future of Arianespace. The Italians are the lead on this space plane project, to the apparent chagrin of the French, who mostly run the launch facility in French Guiana. Moreover, it appears the Italians have generally sided with the Germans against the French in the Ariane 6 design negotiations. I wonder if the delay was instigated by higher management in an effort to influence those negotiations.

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