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A European mini-space shuttle prototype launched into space on Wednesday and then zoomed back to Earth in a daring test of innovative technologies for future reusable spacecraft.
The European Space Agency's car-sized Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, blasted off atop a Vega rocket from the European Spaceport in French Guiana at 8:40 a.m. ET Wednesday. The craft came back to Earth about 100 minutes later, making a parachute-assisted splashdown in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A recovery ship was on its way to collect the IXV, ESA said.
ESA's director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said the test flight "couldn't have been better, but the mission itself is not yet over."
"Now it's going to be necessary to analyze all of the data that was collected throughout the flight," Dordain said. [Photos: Europe's IXV Reusable Space Plane Prototype]
The experimental vehicle is a wingless lifting body rather than a winged space plane. It measures 16.4 feet long by 4.9 feet high by 7.2 feet wide (5 by 1.5 by 2.2 meters) and weighs almost 2 tons (1,814 kilograms) when fully fueled, ESA said.
Wednesday's flight plan called for the IXV to hit a maximum altitude of 261 miles (420 kilometers), then barrel back into Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 16,800 mph (27,037 kilometers per hour). Hundreds of sensors assessed how its thermal protection, guidance and other key systems perform during re-entry.
ESA considers IXV an important step along the path to mastering autonomous, controlled re-entry technology. IXV is considered "intermediate" because it follows the 1998 flight of the Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator capsule and precedes an envisioned space plane project called PRIDE, which stands for Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator for Europe.