How Will the ESA's Reusable Spacecraft Work?
As a species, we're quickly moving toward taking our place in the stars...
Nevertheless, we've been limited to expensive single-use spacecraft. Commercial companies like SpaceX and government agencies like NASA are working toward creating reusable spacecraft. SpaceX's Falcon9 and Falcon Heavy are already proving that the concept works, while NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) has yet to take its maiden voyage. The European Space Agency (ESA) is also working on creating a reusable spacecraft. How will this reusable spacecraft work, and how long until it heads skyward?
Introducing Space Rider
Reusable spacecraft will make traveling into orbit and beyond more accessible for both space agencies and commercial interests. Instead of spending millions or billions of pounds to create a craft that will only fly once, that cost can be split between any and all of the clients who will be utilising it. This is where "Space Rider" comes in, standing for Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return.
This reusable, uncrewed spacecraft will be capable of orbiting the Earth for up to two months at a time, acting as a high-tech space laboratory. Its 1,200 litre (42 cubic foot) cargo bay will hold up to 800 kg of cargo and experiments in its climate-controlled interior.
Unlike previous crewed or uncrewed capsules, Space Rider will be capable of soft landings near inhabited areas, eliminating the need for the ocean landings that used to be necessary for crewed capsules. Even today, NASA's Orion capsule that will eventually carry astronauts into orbit and beyond will still land in the Pacific Ocean.
Space Rider won't be carrying astronauts into space, however. This will serve as a platform where scientists can remotely carry out their experiments in microgravity without ever having to leave home — a boon for any scientist who could benefit from conducting their work in outer space but who couldn't pass the astronaut physical to get there.
Launch and Landing
Space Rider isn't an original design. It's adapted from the AVUM+, the upper stage of a Vega-C rocket, which is the very same craft that will be launching Rider into orbit and is based on the ESA's Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV). The IXV carried out a successful flight/reentry test in 2015, creating the foundation for the creation of Space Rider.
Rider, once complete, will launch from the ESA's spaceport in Kourou, French Guinea — a joint location shared with the French Space Agency that has recently been upgraded to support the launch of Ariane 6 and Vega-C rocket. The latter will carry Rider into orbit. Kourou is ideal because it rests just 500km north of the equator, making it the perfect place to launch satellites and other craft into geostationary orbits. Its landlocked location makes it a better choice than even Cape Canaveral in Florida — there's no risk of having to call off a launch because of a hurricane!
Once in orbit, Rider will stay there for up to two months at a time, carrying out experiments. It will be attached to the AVUM+ that we mentioned a moment ago, adjusting the craft's trajectory as needed to meet the criteria of the onboard experiments. If it needs to flip upside-down so cameras — which would have to be installed on top of Rider to prevent damage during re-entry — can take pictures of the planet below, it can easily make those adjustments.
At the end of its mission, it will slowly deorbit, using ceramic ablative plates to disperse the heat similar to the panels that used to adorn NASA's crewed Space Shuttles. It will be equipped with a parafoil that will allow the craft to glide down to a soft landing. From there, it can be collected, its payload of scientific discoveries recovered and then refurbished for its next mission.
Not the First, But Not The Last
The ESA isn't the first space agency to work toward launching a reusable spacecraft, but they're definitely not the last, either. Russia and China have both started making plans to build or rebuild their space programs. India recently tested their first reusable launch vehicle, but it likely won't be ready to handle crewed missions until 2030 at the earliest.
When NASA ended the U.S. shuttle programme in 2011, it published the blueprints for each of them online, providing them for free to anyone who wants to see how the shuttles worked — or possibly build their own. It's not something for the faint of heart though — NASA estimated that it spent $450 million each time it launched one of the shuttles.
Space Rider isn't quite ready for that maiden voyage — not yet anyway — but as of June 2019, it has passed its preliminary design review phase and will be entering its critical design review stage by the end of the year. If everything works out the way it's supposed to, Space Rider could be heading for a geostationary orbit as early as 2022.
Looking Toward the Future
Falcon 9. Falcon Heavy. Dragon and Crew Dragon. SLS. Orion. New Shepard. Space Rider. What do all these things have in common? They're all reusable spacecraft, and together they may represent the turning point in human space travel. ESA might not be on the leading edge of reusable spacecraft technology, but they're taking all the steps in the right direction.
NASA started the trend with the Space Shuttle — the world's first reusable spacecraft, but it relied on disposable booster rockets and a fuel tank that was discarded after each launch. SpaceX continued with reusable rockets, cargo shuttles and eventually crewed craft. The company is even working on a foolproof way to recover the rocket's fairing — the cone that covers the rocket's payload, making craft aerodynamic. SpaceX will use fast boats to catch the two pieces of the fairing as they decend back to earth.
ESA's Space Rider may or may not ever carry human passengers, but even if it is only an uncrewed craft, it will still provide an unprecedented opportunity for scientists in Europe and around the globe to perform experiments in microgravity, something they may never have been able to do otherwise. Rider's first launch could potentially turn Europe into a competitive space superpower, and we can't wait to see the floating lab's maiden voyage.