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.
NEWS: Europe Testing Prototype Mini-Shuttle
"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.
NEWS: Unmanned Space Shuttle to Get Trial Run
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.