The Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) made a successful suborbital test flight on Wednesday, paving the way for the first European spacecraft capable of safely returning from space to Earth. Though the full results will take time to analyze, the European Space Agency (ESA) says IXV’s flight went exactly as expected, and that good data was received from over 300 sensors aboard the craft.
IXV only completed about half an orbit around the Earth before parachuting to a splashdown in the Pacific, which was exactly what it was supposed to do. The test was to evaluate reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, rather than to conduct operations in orbit. If all goes according to plan, ESA will launch a much larger version around 2018, which will eventually be used to resupply the International Space Station.
Importantly, IXV is ESA’s latest and greatest attempt to build something that can not only withstand the intense forces of atmospheric reentry, but can be refurbished and used again. The practical importance of such a vehicle is simple: It can be much cheaper and easier to use a spacecraft more than once, instead of simply discarding it to burn up in the atmosphere, like past European cargo ships traveling to and from the station. There is also strategic and commercial value: ESA is chasing Russia and China, who both have capsules that ferry astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station and Tiangong-1 Space Station respectively. In addition, the United States has the experimental (and highly classified) X-37, and American commercial company SpaceX has safely returned several cargo capsules to Earth, with plans to refurbish and launch them again.