Italy’s first Unmanned Space Vehicle (USV) launch

On the morning of February 24th, 2007, the first Italian Unmanned Space Vehicle (USV) successfully completed its first mission, which objective was to simulate the final part of a space vehicle’s re-entry into the atmosphere. The launch took place at 8:30 a.m. from Tortolì airport in Sardinia, next to the Italian Airforce Salto di Quirra Launch Base (PISQ).  The USV  was designed as a sophisticated research lab by CIRA (Italian Aerospace Research Centre) and created in collaboration with some of the most important Italian industries in this field.  

The USV program proposes the investigation of the complex phases of hypersonic flight and re-entry into the atmosphere, in order to fine tune some of the principal technologies and methodologies used. This will allow our enterprises to develop the operational spacecraft of the future with high manoeuvrability during atmospheric flight. 

CIRA team, charged with the flying laboratory set up, mission details and launch operations, has been ready for the launch since January 24th, 2007, awaiting suitable weather conditions in order to give the green light to the operations. The right atmospheric conditions occurred in the early morning of Saturday 24th February. The vehicle, set up in a vertical position, thanks to a 200t crane, hooked up to a stratospheric balloon filled with 340.000 cubic meters of helium, started its ascent at 8:30 a.m. and after two hours achieved a floating altitude of 20.1 km. Once reached the safety area, verified that all nominal operational and safety conditions were fulfilled, the release command was activated from the USV-MCC mission control centre and the USV began its flight, accelerated by gravity till Mach 1.07, and performed a nose up manoeuvre. During the main 37 seconds manoeuvre, the experiments were activated, various GB of data were collected and stored on board and their most part transmitted to ground through telecommunication links.

The mission ended at 10:12 a.m. with the vehicle splash-down within the Tyrrhenian Sea area cleared and controlled by PISQ. Due to a parachute system first stage failure, the water impact was violent and caused the vehicle splitting in three parts: two parts were recovered by the NAVY Vessel named Tavolara and the third one, the heaviest, sunk at an over 2000 m depth.

The USV in flight behaviour was very good: it executed, as expected, the transonic nose manoeuvre completely autonomously and, in spite of the vehicle loss, the link redundancy designed and realized by CIRA engineers guaranteed the availability of more than 90% of the experimental data collected on board. Therefore, mission’s scientific objective was completely achieved and CIRA researchers have now more than two million of data to analyze including flight data, system housekeeping data, aerodynamic and structural data collected thanks to the 500 experimental sensors placed on board.

The USV Program, and in particular the first two aircraft built, Castor and Pollux, which currently alternate flights, are one of the few examples in the world of operational space demonstrators currently in use. Initiated in 2002, the program is forecast to reach completion in 2012. The cost, extremely limited compared to the investment usually required in this sector, is 179 million Euros, of which 86.7 were financed by PRORA (National Aerospace Research Program) and 80 by PASN (National AeroSpace Plan). 

The execution of this first mission required massive involvement of government bodies such as the Italian Space Agency (ASI), CNR (National Research Council), Italian Air Force, Italian Navy, ENAC (Italian Civil Aviation Authority), ENAV (Italian Company for Air Navigation Services) and the European Space Agency (ESA).  Moreover, the project benefited of the technical participation of relevant Italian industry organizations like Thales Alenia Space Italia, Carlo Gavazzi Space, Vitrociset, Space Software Italia, Techno System Dev., ISL, DEMA and Marotta.  

Next flight is planned for winter 2007-2008 aiming at higher maximum Mach number and more complex manoeuvre.


Source: CIRA - Italian Aerospace Research Center
Picture provided and copyrighted by CIRA - Italian Aerospace Research Center

For further information about CIRA - Italian Aerospace Research Center, click here

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