Europe is hoping to launch a space plane in the next few years, but it's already started making plans to commercialize it.
The vehicle is called Space Rider, which yes, sounds pretty awesome. It’s going to measure up to 5 meters (16 feet) in length, which is about half the size of the US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B and 11 times shorter than the Space Shuttle.
It’s an unmanned vehicle, and will be used to perform experiments in microgravity. It’s got a payload bay, so it could release some small satellites into orbit. ESA also plans to use it to test how to return from space, something they say they don’t have “solid knowhow” about.
ESA is hoping to perform a test flight in 2020 before it becomes regularly operational, using an Arianespace Vega-C rocket to get to orbit. It can then land on a runway by itself. The design is based on ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), basically a prototype space plane that launched and landed in 2015.
But according to SpaceNews, even though it hasn’t launched yet, ESA already has plans to commercialize Space Rider. “We really believe there is a market, a niche, that will drive this,” Giorgio Tumino, ESA’s Space Rider and Vega rocket development program manager, told the website.
Quite what it will carry isn’t known yet, but Space Rider will have space (heh) to take up to 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) of stuff into orbit, at a cost of $9,200 per kilogram. That’s actually not that cheap, considering SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can send equipment even higher for less than $4,000. Ho hum.
The vehicle will orbit Earth at an altitude of about 400 kilometers (250 miles), which is roughly the same as the International Space Station (ISS), for several months at a time. It will launch from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, although the locals haven’t been super happy about ESA launching from here lately.
This is not the only orbital space plane in development. There’s also the aforementioned X-37B and US company Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, which will be used to take cargo to the ISS. It might even take humans into space one day, too.
With reusability being such a big deal these days, ESA seems keen to tap into this market. Launch prices are rapidly dropping elsewhere though, so the Space Rider may not have much of a market by the time it actually does fly. But it will be a good chance for ESA to test out space plane technology, at the very least.