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The European Space Agency is due to launch an experimental space plane from its spaceport in French Guiana on Wednesday — a step that it hopes will pave the way for Europe's first reusable space transportation system.
ESA's uncrewed Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, will lift off at 8 a.m. ET aboard a rocket before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean around 100 minutes later. The car-sized IXV, which ESA says cost around €150 million ($169 million) to design and develop, will separate from the rocket at an altitude of 200 miles (320 kilometers) and coast up to an altitude of 280 miles (450 kilometers) before heading for atmospheric re-entry.
The space plane will decelerate to supersonic from hypersonic speeds and then deploy a parachute to slow further. Flaps and thrusters will autonomously steer it to splash down in the water, where flotation balloons will keep it from sinking so it can be recovered by ship.
While Europe is well advanced in launcher technology and in orbiting systems, it is behind the United States when it comes to systems enabling a return to Earth, IXV project manager Giorgio Tumino told Reuters.