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Watch the launch of Europe's experimental and wingless spaceplane

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is preparing to launch its next-generation spaceplane known as the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle or IXV. The 5-meter-long, two-tonne vehicle will be launched on a Vega rocket to a height of 450 kilometers before descending for re-entry in the Pacific Ocean. The crewless mission will take no longer than 100 minutes but is intended to test the ESA's ability to not only get into space, but get back down as well.

Europe needs to "close the circle" — go to orbit, stay in orbit, come back from orbit

"Europe is excellent at going to orbit; we have all the launchers, for example. We also have great knowhow in operating complex systems in orbit. But where we are a bit behind is in the knowledge of how to come back from orbit," the project's manager, Giorgio Tumino, told the BBC. "So, if we are to close the circle — go to orbit, stay in orbit, come back from orbit — this third leg we need to master as well as other, spacefaring nations."

The most important technology being tested in the IXV is its "lifting body" — a type of aircraft design that creates lift without the use of wings. A follow-up project named PRIDE (Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe) has already been approved to create a re-entry vehicle that could land on a runway. The design for PRIDE takes its cues from IXV but is also similar to the US military's secretive X37-B spaceplane — a reusable, 29ft-long wingless craft that is officially being used to test re-entry technology, but that many speculate could have other objectives.

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