ESA’s Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator has now arrived at Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, France where it will form part of the Ariane 5 launcher exhibit. The ARD is Europe’s first step towards developing a re-entry vehicle so that people and equipment can be sent into space - and brought back safely.
The ARD was launched in October 1998 by an Ariane 5 from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana. After performing a sub-orbital flight and reaching an altitude of 830 km it landed in the Pacific Ocean within 5 km of the predicted touchdown point. On recovery the ARD underwent post-flight testing at the EADS Launch Vehicles premises in Bordeaux. EADS LV is the main contractor concerned with this project which also involved many other European industries.
Only by carrying out actual tests of demonstration vehicles can Europe improve its knowledge of re-entry vehicles. Another benefit of the ARD test, for both ESA and Europe, is that the technology employed onboard the ARD is a prototype of the technology that will be used in future exploration missions to planets such as Mars, Titan and one of the Saturn moons.
Now that the test results and analysis of the mission have been published they confirm two important factors: firstly that Europe has the capability of mastering re-entry techniques and secondly that European industry is capable of managing such a project. The next step is to obtain further experience with instrumented experimental flight vehicles so that Europe can improve its mastery of future space-transportation missions.
This process is well underway as ESA is finishing development of the X38 prototype Crew Rescue Vehicle, has carried out initial studies on a Crew Transport and Return Vehicle as its contribution to the NASA Space Launch Initiative programme and commenced long-term studies on reuseable launchers and re-entry vehicles as part of its General Support Technology Programme.
Last but not least, the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme is under preparation and this includes a major technology and in-flight experimentation for reusable launch vehicles.
The ARD will remain on view in the Ariane 5 exhibit for two years. This exhibit is well worth seeing and includes a video showing how the ARD was prepared and recovered. Of course there are many other interesting exhibits on show at the 3.5 ha Cité de l’Espace space park, so if you are in the vicinity it is well worth a visit.