Pioneering “made-in-Portugal” research pod opens brave new dawn for Europe’s space manoeuvres

If you thought Europe did not really have a space programme, you could not be more mistaken. ESA – the European Space Agency – is working wonders with a space pod using technology “made in Portugal” which signals a brave new dawn in European space travel.

The IXV (standing for “Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle”) has just returned from its maiden voyage and is now bobbing about on a raft of balloons in the Pacific Ocean, just west of the Galapagos Islands, waiting to be picked up by a recovery ship that will take it to ESA’s technical centre in the Netherlands.

Its successful space mission was designed to test re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The fact that it went without a hitch now means ESA can develop craft that are not dependent on technology “which up until now has been controlled by the North Americans, Russians and Chinese”, reports Lusa.

Paulo Chaves of the Portuguese group ISQ involved in the mission agreed “the doors are now open” for unmanned observation flights and other manoeuvres, including the servicing and launching of micro-satellites.

ISQ had been working on the thermic shield of the IXV for the last five years. According to technology website pcguia, 30 engineers from all over Portugal have been pooling their expertise and the results boil down to a surface covering that can withstand multiple journeys without needing much maintenance.

As ESA’s director general Jean-Jacques Dordain said after this week’s mission: “IXV has opened a new chapter for ESA in terms of re-entry capabilities and reusability. ESA and its member states, together with European space industry, are now ready to take up new challenges in several fields of space transportation, in future launchers, robotic exploration or human spaceflight.”

The IXV cost €170 million – of which Portugal contributed €870,000 through the “Gabinete do Espaço da Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia”.

It is basically a two-ton craft, the size of a large car, with flaps as opposed to wings.

It was launched into space on Wednesday lunchtime from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, reaching an altitude of 412kms before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds of 7.5 kms/second.

During the almost hour-and-three-quarter flight, it recorded “a vast amount of data from more than 300 advanced and conventional sensors” – and this will now be studied, with “initial results expected to be released in about six weeks”, confirms the ESA website.

According to Lusa, IXV was supported by seven member states, with Italy providing the largest share. As well as input from Portugal, 40 companies, investigation centres and universities from France, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and Ireland were involved.

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Photo: ESA – J. Huart – “Artist’s impression of ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV)”