As space agencies look to expand their presence in space, the value of reusable vehicles keeps increasing. SpaceX has seen great success with its Dragon and Falcon 9 combo, for example. The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to move forward with its Space Rider project, an uncrewed, reusable orbital vehicle that will mate with the Ariane and Vega families of rockets.
Space Rider, which stands for Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return, could be ready for use by 2022. The first missions will likely use the Vega-C rocket, launching from the ESA’s facility in Kourou, French Guiana. Engineers hope to design a vehicle that can remain in orbit for up to two months at a maximum altitude of 271 miles (450 kilometers) in order to perform scientific research.
Space Rider will be able to haul 1,760 pounds (800 kilograms) of cargo in its 42-cubic-foot (1,200-liter) cargo bay. That’s about two and a half times the cargo volume in an average SUV. The spacecraft will have 600 watts of power for its onboard thermal, control, and data-handling capabilities. The cargo bay will be climate-controlled, too.
At the end of a mission, Space Rider will re-enter the atmosphere, using ceramic ablative materials to disperse heat. The vessel will use a parafoil to glide down and make a soft landing near inhabited areas (see the video below). This should make it even faster and easier to refurbish the hardware. The ESA makes no mention of using the Space Rider for crewed missions.
The Space Rider borrows from both the Vega-C’s AVUM+ stage and the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) design. The latter flew a test mission in 2015, setting the stage for the development of a more useful vehicle. Using the IXV as a starting point, the ESA added a larger multipurpose cargo bay, landing gear, and a more robust design. Designers say the spacecraft should be capable of at least five launches and landings with only minimal refurbishment in between.
The ESA will use the Space Rider for its own purposes, but it also plans to sell payload space to businesses. The reusable nature and rapid development timeline should keep costs low. The ESA hasn’t started building the Space Rider module yet, but it expects to have a critical design review completed at the end of 2019.