BERLIN (Reuters) - The European Space Agency (ESA) is due to launch an experimental spaceplane from its spaceport in French Guiana on Wednesday which it hopes will pave the way towards Europe's first reusable space transportation systems.
ESA's Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), which is the size of a car, will lift off at 1300 GMT (0800 ET) aboard a rocket before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean around 100 minutes later.
IXV, which ESA says cost around 150 million euros ($169 million) in design, development and related ground support, will separate from the rocket at an altitude of 320 kilometers (200 miles) and will coast up to an altitude of 450 kilometers before beginning re-entry.
The spaceplane 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.
There are risks that Wednesday's mission may not run smoothly. "We have done all we can to secure it, but it is experimental. We know something could go wrong but we're keeping our fingers crossed," he said.
The initial test launch planned for November was canceled over safety concerns for people near the flight trajectory. ESA said that finding an alternative trajectory solved the issue.
IXV is similar to NASA's space shuttle orbiters, which were retired in 2011 after 30 years of missions, and to the Dream Chaser spaceship being developed by Sierra Nevada Corp.
Unlike those vehicles, however, the ESA experimental spaceship is wingless.
Reusable spaceplanes that can carry out controlled landings on runways rather then splashing down in the ocean could help bring down costs and also enable scientists to bring back samples from celestial bodies such as comets.
The IXV has a cone-shaped body, which gives it more maneuverability than reusable capsules being developed by Boeing and SpaceX, but is a simpler design than the winged NASA space shuttle, Tomino said.
(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Additional reporting by Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)