The European Space Agency announced plans today to launch a privately built snub-nosed space bullet, which sort of resembles a wingless, truncated space shuttle, within the next two years. Thales Alenia Space, builder of several International Space Station components and many European satellites, is manufacturing the spacecraft.
The Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle is a 2-ton “lifting body," with no wings whatsoever and only two moving flaps that will control its movement. The spacecraft will launch on an ESA Vega rocket, reaching speeds of 16,000 miles per hour and 280 miles in altitude. Then it will return to Earth much like the shuttle, only with flaps guiding it instead of glider wings. It will parachute to a splash landing in the Pacific Ocean.The spacecraft is more like the X-37B than the shuttle in that it will operate autonomously. It is more maneuverable and more precise than previous reusable spacecraft designs, according to ESA.
It's also a departure from the Skylon space plane, which also recently received an ESA green light. That spacecraft takes off and lands like an airplane, employing an on-board rocket that fires up at high altitudes.