Entry test missions

Not only the parachute systems require testing, but some missions are also launched just to validate the performance of a thermal protection system. An overview of these missions can be found here. 

Click here for a more detailed page on missions that specificly aideed in the development of space planes:

Deployable thermal protection systems are sometimes considered to be the future of EDL systems. They can significantly increase their size during entry, slowing the vehicle down significantly. 

A significant part of the entry demonstrator missions were aimed towards the development of ballistic missiles for the military. Even Though military missions is not the primary focus of this website, it is impossible to ignore these developments when it comes to re-entry missions.

Not only were ballistic missiles of significant focus, but steerable entry vehicles were also researched. These moved to avoid incoming anti-air systems.  

Reusable Launch Vehicle - Technology Demonstrator

Operator: ISRO

Mission: Reusable launch vehicle demonstrator

Flight: 2016 (first flight)

Status: Ongoing

Testing for: ISRO reusable launch vehicle

The RLV-TD is a reusable demonstrator made and operated by ISRO. The subscale-winged demonstrator first flew in 2016 on top of a 9-ton HS9 solid rocket motor. This flight occurred on May the 23rd 2016. the rocket lifted off to about 65 km after which it performed a controlled entry and safe landing in the Bay of Bengal. The vehicle was not recovered from the ocean, and telemetry sent the data back. 

In 2023 the RLV-RD will continue testing in the landing experiment. During these experiments, the vehicle will be dropped from about 2.4 km, which it will fly back to a landing strip. 


Operator: DLR

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 2024

Status: Planned

Testing for: 

After completing SHEFEX I and II, DLR used the information gathered during these projects for the next step. This step was to perform a test flight with a winged vehicle which should resemble a possible winged first stage of a reusable launch vehicle. This is the reusable flight experiment ReFEX. Its goals are to gain operational experience with winged first stages and, more generally, to gather flight and design data [142].

The ReFEX vehicle will be around 450 kg in mass, of which the structure of the vehicle itself takes up more than half. The rest comprises the GNS system for autonomous flight, the fins and the avionics. It has a cylindrical body with a length of 2.7 m. It has two canards and a small delta wing at the back with a wing span of 1.1 m. As the ReFEX will be launched on top of a VSB-30, not inside a fairing, its non-symmetrical shape poses an issue, as it has a tail wing. Therefore,  ReFEX will be partially hidden during the ascent by an external fairing structure. This structure covers the two folded wings and adds a find on only the fairing to make the vehicle symmetrical [142,144,145]. Although initially planned to have a parachute to cover the last part of the flight due to volume constraints, it was chosen to remove it and have the data continuously downloaded from the vehicle [142].


ReFEX is currently planned to be launched in 2024 in Australia. When it does and is separated from the VSB-30 rocket, it will start to descend. Part of the goal of gaining operational experience for winged stages is to test the autonomous GNC system and perform certain manoeuvres with the vehicle [142]. ReFEX will first make sure that it is belly-up when going into its hypersonic phase of the flight. This unusual orientation is due to stability reasons, as the tail fin would have no control when in the “normal” belly-down orientation [142]. Once ReFEX reaches Mach 1.5, it will rotate to a belly-down configuration, during which time it will also perform a turning manoeuvre. The end of the experiment is set at 8-10 km, after which ReFEX will perform a hard horizontal landing because it has neither a parachute nor landing gear for a soft landing.


Operator: ESA

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 11-02-2015

Status: Succesfull

Testing for: Testing for Space Rider

Render of IXV attached to Vega

Upon re-entry, IXV performed a controlled descent and deceleration down to 26 km and Mach 1.45. As the main focus of the mission was proving the lifting body, the recovery system mostly consisted of off-the-shelf components. First, a pyrotechnic mortar deployed the pilot chute, a 1.7 m Disk-Gap-Band developed for NASA’s Mars missions. This pilot chute deployed a 4.3 m drogue parachute taken from the F-117 Nighthawk, slowing the vehicle down to Mach 0.3. At an altitude of 10 km, the first stage main parachute was deployed, a 7.4 m ribbon parachute also used on the F-111 Aardvark’s crew ejection capsule. Finally, at an altitude of 5 km and a speed of Mach 0.12, the second stage main parachute was deployed, a 29.6 m ringsail designed for the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. This parachute was initially reefed to 10%, fully inflating after 10 seconds to slow the vehicle down to its splashdown velocity of 6 m/s [151]. After splashdown, four large, 0.8 m3 airbags were inflated to provide flotation and stability to the vehicle before it could be recovered by the Italian ship Nos Aries [149] [151].

IXV post landing

IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) was an intermediate step in the development programme for an autonomous European space transportation system. The programme started in 2002 as a follow-on of ARD (Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator), a re-entry capsule that was launched atop an Ariane 5 in 1998 [149]. Rather than a blunt body type re-entry capsule like ARD, IXV was a lifting body type vehicle. This means that the shape of its fuselage generated lift without requiring wings, making it simpler than a winged vehicle like the Space Shuttle but more controllable than a blunt body re-entry vehicle like ARD or most crewed re-entry capsules. IXV performed a single suborbital test flight in 2015 on a Vega rocket and was the first lifting body to demonstrate re-entry under conditions representative of re-entry from Low Earth Orbit [149] [150]. The IXV programme has since been moved into the Space Rider programme, which aims to become Europe’s reusable space transportation system [150].


Operator: ESA

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 21-11-1998

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Partially for European Crewed Transport Vehicle

Render of ARD

The ESA Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator or ARD was flown in the interstage of the third Ariane 5 rocket. The objective was to demonstrate the ability of ESA to perform a controlled atmospheric re-entry. The capsule was a scale model of the Apollo-style capsule and flew to an apogee of 830km. During the flight, the heat shield reached a temperature of about 900 deg C. The capsule performed multiple manoeuvres during entry demonstrating the ability of ESA to safely return a capsule through the atmosphere. The capsule was equipped with a parachute system for a safe landing. The drogue parachute had a diameter of 5.8 meters. The drogue was followed by a cluster of three 22.9 meter diameter main parachutes. To ensure the capsule remained afloat two balloons were attached and inflated during landing. 


Operator: NASA

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 1964 and 1965

Status: Succesful

Testing for: Apollo

Scematics of FIRE

Scematics of FIRE

As no human-rated spacecraft had re-entered at speeds corresponding to those Apollo would encounter during its return from the Moon, NASA decided to investigate this re-entry and not rely on the current data available and extrapolate this to the required re-entry conditions [161,162]. This was named project FIRE (Flight Investigation Re-entry Environment). Its objective was to gather data on convective and radiative heating, radio attenuation and material behaviour during a re-entry similar to a return trajectory from the Moon [163,164].

To accomplish these velocities, without actually having to fly a spacecraft to the Moon and back, project FIRE would be launched on an Atlas-D into a ballistic trajectory. However, the power of the Atlas launcher would not be enough to reach the required velocity of 11.3 km/s during re-entry [163,164]. So to achieve the needed velocity, an Antares II solid rocket motor was to accompany the re-entry capsule to, right before re-entry, give the final boost.

After separation from the Antares II solid rocket motor, the 85 kg Project FIRE capsules would speed towards the ground at 11.3 km/s when at 12.2 km above the ground. To survive the re-entry, it had multiple alternating layers of phenolic-asbestos and beryllium as a  heatshield, which were embedded calorimeters to measure the heat rate. Besides this, small quartz windows were made in the heatshield to actually see into the flow. However, as it was known before the flight that because of the intensity of re-entry, the heat sensors and the quartz windows would not survive, multiple sensors were buried within multiple layers of the heatshield [163,164].

As the project FIRE capsules did not have a deceleration system, the data needed to be transmitted. This was done with a delay to make sure that the data would be sent in the window after the re-entry black-out and before splashdown in the Atlantic [163,164].


Operator: NASDA

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 04-02-1994

Status: Succesful

Testing for: HOPE-X

To get re-entry data for the HOPE space plane, the Orbital Re-entry Experiment (OREX) was created. The goal was to gather data on various aspects, all having to do with the re-entry phase of the flight. These objectives included gathering data on the aerodynamics and aerodynamic heating as well as communications during the black-out and GPS navigation during re-entry.

The OREX vehicle has a blunt-shaped cone. It has a diameter of 3.4 m and weighed 865 kg at launch and 761 kg at re-entry [38]. On top of the research about the re-entry phase, the OREX vehicle was also intended to test the thermal protection system for the nose of the HOPE spaceplane. It was launched in 1994 into a 450 km circular orbit before it re-entered. After the re-entry, a parachute system was deployed, but it was not known to be type or size [41]. It finally splashed down in the central pacific ocean. [39, 40].

Render of OREX

Render of OREX

Demonstrator of Atmospheric Reentry System and Hypervelocity (DASH)

Operator: ISAS

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 2002

Status: Crashed

Testing for: MUSES-C

The Demonstrator of Atmospheric Reentry System and Hyperbolicvelocity (DASH) was created to verify the MEUS-C sample return vehicle. This vehicle would test the TPS system as well as the deorbit engines. The plan was to launch the vehicle on an H-IIA launcher as a piggyback payload [62,63].

The vehicle itself consisted out of two parts. The actual re-entry vehicle and the payload bus with the -deorbit engines. The total vehicle had a wet weight of 89 kg. The re-entry vehicle had a diameter of 0.4 m and a height of 0.2 m [63]. It weighed 16.5 kg and only consisted of a thermal protection system, space for a scientific sample and a cross parachute [63]. The TPS material was a carbon phenolic type capable of surviving the expected 10 MW/m^2 re-entry heat [62,63]. Although the size of the cross parachute is not given, it can be calculated to be somewhere between 3 m2 and 4.5 m2 [63].

The test was to be completed on the 4th of February in 2002. Unfortunately, the DASH vehicle failed to separate from the HII-A on its way to the target GTO orbit [62,63]. From subsequent investigation gave the possible problem of the mix-up in the pin-assignment in the cable sending the separation signal [62].

Schematic of DASH

Schematic of DASH

Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE)

Operator: ISRO

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: 2007

Status: Completed, project cancelled

SRE 1 was a technology demonstrator mission launched in 2017 by ISRO to test various re-entry and recovery technologies. The 500 kg capsule was launched using a PSLV C7 rocket along with a couple of other satellites. The capsule orbited earth for 12 days before re-entering the atmosphere. The capsule was successfully recovered, and various design aspects of SRE-1 have been adopted in RLV and Gaganyaan.

The capsule was powered with solar panels and had 8 ADCS thrusters. One of the main experiments of the mission was the reusable thermal protection system which endured an entry at 8km/s into the atmosphere. The Capsule used Ablative Phenolic tiles for the nosecone which experiences temperatures up to 2000 C. The sides of the capsule were covered in Silica tiles that relied on radiative cooling and experiences temperatures up to 1400 C. The capsule also used low-density ablative material on the far edges.

The capsule used a 3-stage parachute system comprising of two drogue parachutes and one main parachute, slowing it down from a velocity of 100 m/s to 12 m/s. The capsule was equipped with an onboard floatation system and released fluorescent dye after touchdown for easy aerial detection. There were plans for SRE 2 and 3 but they were cancelled as the focus shifted to RLV and Gaganyaan.

SER capsule


Operator: ESA

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: unflown

Status: unflown, cancelled?

The vehicle consists of a blunted cone with four flat faces cut out of it. On each of these flat faces is a fixed flap to ensure stability during entry and to introduce a shockwave that can be observed by the vehicle’s instruments. As the vehicle is intended to investigate (amongst other things) the hypersonic boundary layer the use of an ablative heat shield is not possible. The ablating material would introduce chemicals into the boundary layer that may influence behaviour. Moreover, the shape may change as material is burnt away making the results difficult to compare. A ceramic c nose cone is therefore used such that it can withstand re-entry heating of up to 2050°C.

Once launched the vehicle would re-enter the atmosphere hypersonically. It was intended to cross the Karman line with a velocity of 5km/s at an angle of -5.5° The parameters were specifically chosen such that the conditions the vehicle experienced would match those that can be achieved in Europe’s hypersonic wind tunnels so that data from the mission could be used to validate these wind tunnels. Once the vehicle has completed the re-entry phase of flight it will deploy a supersonic drogue while travelling at roughly Mach 1.8. It will then deploy a cross-shaped main parachute ensuring a landing velocity of below 10m/s.The image below shows this main parachute from the drop test [27,28,29]

EXPERT Parachute

Entry simulations of the EXPERT capsule

Parachute of EXPERT

The European eXPerimental Re-Entry Testbed (EXPERT) is a hypersonic reentry vehicle designed by the European space agency. The goal of the mission is to address the scarcity of hypersonic flight data and to validate aero-thermodynamic models.


The vehicle was intended to be launched on a suborbital trajectory by a Russian submarine-launched Volna rocket. The launch was originally scheduled for mid-2012 however the Russian Ministry of Defence announced its desire to no longer provide the Volna rocket as a launch vehicle. Unable to find an alternative, low-cost launcher the EXPERT vehicle was placed into storage where it remains today.

RED Phoenix

Operator: SpaceWorks

Mission: Re-Entry demonstrator

Flight: unflown

Status: unflown

The Phoenix capsule of SpaceWorks is a hypersonic test vehicle designed to act as a recoverable flight test bed for research in hypersonic regimes. The capsule will launch on a separate booster after which it will fly a ballistic trajectory and will land safely using a two-stage parachute system. This parachute system is stated to have a supersonic drogue parachute, although no details have been released. 

The capsule is a conical vehicle with a length of about 1.2 meters and a mass of 30 kg. The vehicle is currently in conceptual design with funding from the US Airforce AFWERX SBIR [160].