Europe to Launch Its Own Mini-Space Shuttle

IXV Spaceplane on Payload Adapter
The IXV spaceplane is positioned on the payload adapter before being loaded onto the Vega rocket ahead of launch in Kourou, French Guiana. (Image credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency is preparing for launch next week of a small reusable spacecraft that is due to make its first test run beyond the atmosphere.

The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, is about the size of a family car and shaped like a cone to provide aerodynamic lift, similar to NASA's now-retired space shuttle, the military's X-37B robotic spaceplane and the Dream Chaser passenger spaceship being designed by Sierra Nevada Corp.

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"It's different from a capsule," Roberto Angelini , IXV program manager with manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, said in an ESA interview. [Photos of Europe's IXV Space Plane]

The so-called "lifting-body" shape allows the vehicle to interact with the atmosphere, generating lift like an airplane, but without the wings.

"This allows the vehicle to be guided during re-entry, allowing for a more precise point during the re-entry," Angelini said.

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For its debut run, IXV will reach an altitude of about 250 miles – roughly as high as the International Space Station flies – following launch aboard a 98-foot tall, four-stage Vega rocket.

Liftoff is expected between 8 and 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 11 from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, located on the northeast coast of South America.

IXV, which weighs about 2 tons, should reach speeds of nearly 16,800 mph before it plunges back into the atmosphere on a path expected to be similar to what spacecraft returning from station-like orbits experience.

This article was provided by Discovery News.

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Irene Klotz
Contributing Writer

Irene Klotz is a founding member and long-time contributor to She concurrently spent 25 years as a wire service reporter and freelance writer, specializing in space exploration, planetary science, astronomy and the search for life beyond Earth. A graduate of Northwestern University, Irene currently serves as Space Editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology.