This week the European Space Agency commissioned aerospace company Thales Alenia to build the unmanned European Experimental Reentry Testbed (EXPERT) vehicle. EXPERT will be launched by a Russian Volna rocket (basically a converted submarine-launched ballistic missile), reaching an altitude of 100 km, and reentering the atmosphere at 5 km per second.
Europe would like to develop its robotic cargo ship, the ATV, into something that could carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But while the ATV has demonstrated that Europe can orbit a pressurized vehicle successfully, the ATV has no ability to return to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere after its supply missions have been completed. An upgraded version of the ATV, known as the Advanced Rentry Vehicle (ARV), will demonstrate the ability to return a payload safely from orbit, but before it can be constructed, Europe needs to gain the kind of information about reentry behavior that the U.S. and Russian programs obtained decades ago during the earlier days of their manned space programs.
ESA hopes that EXPERT will start providing this data after it begins flying in 2010. EXPERT will also demonstrate a parachute system for soft landings–another vital technology if Europe wants its astronauts to come back in one piece.
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