BERLIN (AP) — The European Space Agency successfully tested a prototype mini-shuttle Wednesday, gathering valuable data for the construction of a possible future spacecraft capable of ferrying cargo and people between Earth and orbit.
The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV, was launched aboard a Vega rocket at 1340 GMT (8:40 a.m. EST) from ESA's spaceport in French Guiana.
The five-meter-long (16½-foot-long), two-ton vehicle rose to an altitude of around 413 kilometers (257 miles) — high enough to reach the International Space Station — before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 1520 GMT, to cheers from the mission control room in Turin, Italy.
"It couldn't have been better," said ESA's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain. "Now we have to analyze all the data that was collected."
Shaped somewhat like a smaller version of the now-retired U.S. space shuttle, the IXV has no tail or discernible wings. Instead, it uses flaps that allow it to "surf" through the atmosphere on re-entry, according to Thomas Beck, ESA's head of external services.
"IXV is a sort of compromise between a shuttle and an Apollo-like capsule," said Beck. The IXV, a one-off prototype that cost 150 million euros ($170 million), used parachutes to land safely in the Pacific. But a future model based on its design could theoretically land at an airfield, he said.
ESA has plans for a reusable spacecraft called PRIDE, but this project hasn't been approved yet.
While Russia's Soyuz capsules and new spacecraft developed by private companies such as SpaceX have met the need for re-entry vehicles since the end of the space shuttle program, ESA's member states have expressed a wish to have an independent European re-entry capability.
Beck said it was possible that the technology coming out of the IXV project could be used by public-private partnerships further down the line.