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AIRSHOW-Europe tests reusable spaceship

AIRSHOW-Europe tests reusable spaceship

The European Space Agency is preparing to launch an experimental reusable spaceship next summer following a successful atmospheric test flight this week, officials said at the Paris Airshow.

A mock-up built by Thales Alenia Space was dropped from a helicopter flying 1.9 miles above the Mediterranean near Sardinia on Wednesday to check its handling and parachute system, company officials said.

The 14.4 foot long (4.4 meter) craft, known as “IXV” as it is an intermediate experimental vehicle, splashed down in the ocean and was retrieved by an awaiting ship.

The test flight clears IXV for a follow-on demonstration run beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in August next year. That program, in turn, paves the way for an orbital prototype dubbed “Pride”, slated to launch in 2018.

The aim is to help Europe develop an autonomous atmospheric re-entry system that could be used on vehicles flying experiments in space, Roberto Provera, director of space transportation programs for Thales Alenia Space, told Reuters.

“It’s the first time in Europe that we’ve tried something like this,” Provera said, adding that it could eventually be used to carry people.

The vehicles are similar to but smaller than the U.S. military’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles, built by Boeing. Like NASA’s now-retired space shuttles, they have “lifting body” designs shaped to produce lift without airplane-like wings.

For its next test, Europe will launch another IXV vehicle on a Vega rocket from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

Once at an altitude of about 199 miles, the IXV will separate from the rocket and climb to about 267 miles before slamming back into the atmosphere at a speed of about 4.7 miles per second and parachuting into the Pacific Ocean.

Several U.S. firms are also developing reusable spaceships. Designs include traditional capsules, as well as “lifting body” vehicles.