The launch of ESA's IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle on Europe's new Vega rocket is now in detailed planning, a major step towards the craft's flight in 2014.
Launched into a suborbital trajectory from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, IXV will return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, to test and qualify new critical technologies for future reentry vehicles.
It will attain an altitude of around 450 km, allowing it to reach a velocity of 7.5 km/s on entering the atmosphere. It will collect a large amount of data during its hypersonic and supersonic flight, while it is being controlled by thrusters and aerodynamic flaps.
IXV will then descend by parachute and land in the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.
ESA and the Arianespace launch provider signed a contract on 14 December to study the launch on Vega, as part of the VERTA - Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment - programme.
The rocket's qualification flight planned for liftoff at the end of January will pave the way for the next five VERTA missions that will demonstrate the system's flexibility.
At a planned rate of two launches per year, the programme will allow the smooth introduction of Vega for commercial exploitation.
Following development of critical technologies and completion of the design, the vehicle's manufacturing, assembly, integration and qualification is now under way for a flight window between January and September 2014.
Procurement of the ground network has begun, including the mission control centre, ground station telemetry kits, transportable antennas and communication network.
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