European Space agency tests mini-shuttle prototype
Data gathered could be used to construct spacecraft capable of ferrying cargo and people between Earth and orbit
The European Space Agency has successfully tested a prototype mini-shuttle, gathering valuable data for the construction of a possible future spacecraft capable of ferrying cargo and people between Earth and orbit.
The Press Association reports that the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, was launched on board a Vega rocket from ESA's spaceport in French Guiana.
The five-metre-long, two-tonne vehicle rose to an altitude of around 257 miles - high enough to reach the International Space Station - before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, to cheers from the mission control room in Turin, Italy.
ESA's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain said: "It couldn't have been better. Now we have to analyse all the data that was collected."
Shaped like a smaller version of the now-retired US space shuttle, the IXV has no tail or discernible wings. Instead, it uses flaps that allow it to "surf" through the atmosphere on re-entry, according to Thomas Beck, ESA's head of external services.
He said: "IXV is a sort of compromise between a shuttle and an Apollo-like capsule."
The IXV, a one-off prototype that cost 150 million euro, used parachutes to land safely in the Pacific. But a future model based on its design could theoretically land at an airfield, he said.
ESA has plans for a reusable spacecraft called Pride, but the project is yet to be approved.
While Russia's Soyuz capsules and new spacecraft developed by private companies such as SpaceX have met the need for re-entry vehicles since the end of the space shuttle programme, ESA's member states have expressed a wish to have an independent European re-entry capability.
Beck said it was possible that the technology coming out of the IXV project could be used by public-private partnerships in future.