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Space Rider

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Space Rider is an ESA program with the objective to provide Europe with an affordable, independent, reusable end-to-end integrated space transportation system for routine access and return from low orbit. It will be used to transport payloads for an array of applications, orbit altitudes and inclinations. 1)

Launched atop Vega-C, Space Rider follows ESA’s IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) mission which on 11 February 2015 performed a flawless suborbital flight with atmospheric reentry and sea landing.

June 2017: Although Europe’s Space Rider reusable spaceplane is three years or so from its debut, the European Space Agency is already making plans to privatize the unmanned orbital vehicle. 2) - By 2025, ESA officials said, Space Rider could be operating commercially, flying science payloads and bringing them back to Earth for roughly $40,000/kg. Arianespace, the Evry, France-based launch services provider, would likely serve as Space Rider’s operator, offering industry and government customers the opportunity to fill the spaceplane 800 kg payload capacity with microgravity science, materials testing, telecommunications and robotics demonstrations.

The Italian Aerospace Research Center (CIRA) and Thales Alena Space manage ESA’s Space Rider project as co-prime contractors. Lockheed Martin is contributing to the design work. Funding for the program’s design phase was approved in December 2016 by ESA’s 22 member states.

A 2020 test flight would see Space Rider launch atop Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket (which makes its own debut in 2019) and land on a runway on one of the Atlantic’s Azores islands, Santa Maria.

During operational flights, Space Rider will orbit 400 km above the Earth for a few months at the time, opening its payload bay doors to expose experiments to the space environment.

On 30 November 2017, TAS (Thales Alenia Space) with ELV (European Launch Vehicle) as co-contractor, has signed a contract with ESA for the engineering and preliminary development of the automated reusable Space Rider transportation system, designed for deployment by the new Vega-C light launcher into LEO (Low Earth Orbit). 3)

Featuring a lifting body configuration, Space Rider is designed as a free-flying orbital platform, capable of remaining two months in orbit, safely reentering the atmosphere and landing. It can be recovered along with its payload, refurbished, and reused for up to six missions. It combines the characteristics of a space system designed for scientific experiments in low Earth orbit with those needed for guidance outside the atmosphere and through an automated landing, including microgravity experiments, in-orbit validations, testing of science and exploration technologies, etc., plus payload recovery on the ground for examination and retesting.

Leading a consortium of European manufacturers, research centers and universities, Thales Alenia Space is responsible for the development of the reentry module (RM), derived from the IXV. ELV is in charge of the development of the service module, derived from the Vega-C upper stage AVUM (Attitude and Vernier Upper Module). The partners in this new program are capitalizing on the lessons learned from the IXV, which enjoyed strong support from the Italian space agency ASI.


Figure 1: Space Rider, a successor to the IXV reentry demonstrator, will provide Europe with an affordable reusable platform for routine access and return from space, with a payload capacity up to 800 kg to an array of orbit altitudes and inclinations for multiple applications such as advanced micro-gravity, in-orbit demonstration and validation for Earth observation, science, telecommunication and robotic exploration. The Vega-C's AVUM+ serves as the propulsion module for Space Rider and stays attached during the mission. It carries deployable solar arrays (image credit: ESA, TAS)


Figure 2: Space Rider mission. ESA’s Space Rider aims to provide Europe with an affordable, independent, reusable end-to-end space transportation system integrated with Vega-C, for routine access and return from low Earth orbit (image credit: ESA)

Development status

• May 19, 2021: SENER Aeroespacial signed a contract with Thales Alenia Space Italia to design the GNC system of the re-entry module, which can be considered the intelligence of the spacecraft as it pilots the vehicle from the time it separates from the orbital module until gliding back to Earth. The system is being developed with the support of Elecnor-Deimos for the atmospheric entry phase. 4)

- ESA's Space Rider mission seeks to provide Europe with a space transport vehicle to LEO that is independent, affordable and reusable, meaning it is capable of returning after putting its payload in orbit. Designed to fly six times to LEO in missions lasting up to two months, Space Rider will be launched by a VEGA-C rocket in 2023.

- Space Rider is also intended as a robotic laboratory capable of carrying out experiments for two months that will be used to demonstrate technologies and promote research in sectors such as pharmacy, biomedicine, biology and physical sciences. At the end of each mission, Space Rider will return to Earth autonomously and its payload will be unloaded before the vehicle is refurbished for another flight.

- This project is a continuation of IXV, a technology demonstration mission that validated the re-entry capabilities after the launch of the vehicle in 2015 from a VEGA rocket, its hypersonic and supersonic flight, which was controlled by means of thrusters and aerodynamic fins, and its atmospheric re-entry and final recovery in the waters of the Pacific. SENER Aeroespacial was the main contractor for the IXV’s GNC system.

- This experience, in addition to that gained as a supplier of the navigation system (VNE/NAVIGA) for VEGA-C rockets, consolidates SENER Aeroespacial as a leading supplier for space transport vehicles and launchers.

• June 5, 2019: Initially proposed in 2016, ESA’s Space Rider reentry vehicle provides a return to Earth and landing capability that compliments the existing launch options of the Ariane and Vega families. 5)

- Having recently completed system and subsystem preliminary design reviews, Space Rider is advancing quickly towards the CDR (Critical Design Review) at the end of 2019.

- Launched on Vega-C, Space Rider will serve as an uncrewed high-tech space laboratory operating for periods longer than two months in low orbit. It will then re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land, returning its valuable payload to eager engineers and scientists at the landing site. After minimal refurbishment it will be ready for its next mission with new payloads and a new mission.

- Space Rider combines reusability, in-orbit operations and transportation, and precise descent of a reentry vehicle able to safely traverse and land close to inhabited zones. These are major developments, set to extend European knowhow across a host of applications allowing industry to open up new markets.

- Up to 800 kg of payloads can fit inside Space Rider's environmentally controlled cargo bay that offers 1200 liters of payload volume and provides services including 600 W of power along with thermal, control, data-handling and telemetry capability.

- The Space Rider system is an adaptation of both Vega-C’s AVUM+ stage, and ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) which flew a flawless mission in 2015.

- The knowledge gained from these developments is being used to ensure a short development schedule and costs per kilogram of payload that are compatible with the evolving global space market.

- The upper stage AVUM+ is enhanced with an AVUM Life Extension kit that will be Space Rider's service module providing power, attitude control and deorbit capability for missions typically lasting two months or more.

- Space Rider builds on IXV, now featuring an added multi-purpose cargo bay, landing gear, and an upgraded design to guarantee reusability for an additional five flights.

- To minimize costs, commercial off the shelf components are used whenever possible, and expensive elements will be reused. After each mission, the vehicle will require only minimal refurbishment, making this vehicle competitive in the market.

- New features include sophisticated avionics for maneuvering in space, deorbiting, and a smooth ride back to Earth with a soft precision landing on the ground.


Figure 3: Open cargo bay. Offering an array of orbit altitudes and inclinations, Space Rider will enable a large variety of experiments in microgravity, open opportunities for educational missions, and help prove technologies for Earth observation, science, telecommunication and robotic exploration. Non-space-based companies can use Space Rider as a shortcut into the space arena, bypassing the need to become expert space users (image credit: ESA)

Figure 4: This animation shows the launch of ESA's reusable lifting body called Space Rider atop Vega-C. On reaching low-Earth orbit, Space Rider will serve as an uncrewed high-tech space laboratory operating for periods longer than two months. It offers an array of orbit altitudes and inclinations for a large variety of experiments and demonstrations in microgravity. - After each mission Space Rider will return to Earth to land on ground to return its cargo before minimal refurbishment for its next mission (video credit: ESA)


Figure 5: Space Rider capabilities. Launched on Vega-C, Space Rider will serve as an uncrewed high-tech space laboratory operating for periods longer than two months in low orbit (image credit: ESA)

- Plans are evolving for the identification among different options available of the first European spaceports for Space Rider landings involving operations, technical providers and new legislation.

- “Space Rider is Europe’s first reusable space transportation vehicle. This fascinating challenge is honing our skills in a range of cutting-edge technologies and this will strengthen our position in this competitive market,” commented Jose Longo, ESA’s Space Rider Development Program Manager.

- Giorgio Tumino, ESA's Vega and Space Rider Development Programs Manager added: "Space Rider provides the European Vega Space Transportation System with the unique opportunity to complement today's capability to access space, with the capabilities to operate and return payloads from space for a variety of in-space applications, in a competitive manner with respect to any alternative solution. These capabilities enable Europe to capture new promising markets as is indicated by the extraordinarily enthusiastic feedback received from potential end users attending our workshops and responding to ESA's announcements of opportunities on Space Rider."

Launch: Space Rider will be launched by a Vega-C vehicle from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in 2023.

1) Space Rider,” ESA, 2 June 2017, URL:

2) Rob Coppinger, ”ESA aims to privatize Space Rider unmanned spaceplane by 2025,” Space News, June 22, 2017, URL:

3) ”Thales Alenia Space signs with European Space Agency the Space Rider preliminary development,” TAS, 30 Nov. 2017, URL:

4) ”Guidance, Navigation + Control For ESA’s Space Rider Mission To Be Designed By SENER Aeroespacial,” Satnews, 19 May 2021, URL:

5) ”Space Rider: Europe’s reusable space transport system,” ESA, 5 June 2019, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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