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Engineers prepare to start work on pioneering European spacecraft

Engineers at Lockheed Martin UK’s Ampthill site will develop two key parts of the cutting-edge, multi-million euro Space Rider project.

The company has been contracted to work on the project by the Italian Aerospace Research Centre which, together with Thales Alenia Space Italy, is developing the craft for the European Space Agency.

Engineers at Ampthill will develop the Space Rider’s actuator system, which operates flaps to steady the flight during its re-entry at a speed of 7.5km per second, and the landing system to bring the spacecraft safely back to Earth.

The civil space order is a great achievement for the Ampthill company, better known for its defence work. It 

Space Rider is a small unmanned reusable space plane being developed by the ESA. It will be launched from a rocket and will gather scientific data, carry out exploration missions as it orbits the Earth and deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station.

Crucially, it will be capable of surviving re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, making it reusable and an affordable way to bring important scientific research findings back from space.

It is planned to make flights lasting from two weeks to six months, with each craft designed to complete at least six flights.

Lockheed Martin’s space business lead Stephen Gibson said: “This is a first for Europe and a first for Lockheed Martin in Ampthill. The activity and capability created by this first contract will allow us to take on other opportunities in the developing commercial space plane market.

“It is a very exciting time and great news for Bedfordshire.”

Technicians at Ampthill are working on two options: a mid-air retrieval system by which the spacecraft is slowed down by a parafoil and then captured in the sky by a helicopter, and more traditional wheeled or skidded landing gear for a runway landing.

They will call on expertise from across the Lockheed Martin Corporation, said Alex Godfrey, technical lead at the Ampthill site.

He added: “Space Rider will re-enter our atmosphere at 7.5km a second. Making sure it lands back on Earth safely is a major part of the project.

“Our initial contract is to carry out the study for both systems, looking at the pros and cons of each. Our findings will be presented to CIRA, and ultimately ESA, for a final decision.

“We would expect this to be completed by the middle of next year, which will then lead us on to the full development and manufacturing phase of the programme.”

Space Rider is the successor to the ESA Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, a test craft that flew into orbit in February last year and successfully returned to earth by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Space Rider’s first launch is expected to take place around 2020. 

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