Scientists conducted a successful test of a German-made prototype of a future European space shuttle on Saturday. In 20 years, the vessel could shuttle satellites and humans to space.
Europe's future space shuttle glides back to Earth
Space researchers in Bremen came a step closer this weekend to the creation of Europe's first reusable, unmanned space shuttle. The so-called Phoenix craft, a prototype of the future Hopper space glider, landed safely at a testing ground after reaching speeds of 450 kilometers per hour in northern Sweden on Saturday.
Bremen-based EADS Space Transportation is developing the shuttle in the hopes that it will carry cargo and astronauts into space within the next 20 years. The European Space Agency, which initiated the project, said the 90-second flight represents a further step towards Europe's possible manned space flights in the future.
The German-designed prototype was carried to a height of 2,400 meters by a helicopter. It then glided back to earth without the use of a motor and without controls from the ground. An onboard computer equipped with GPS guided the Phoenix to a perfect landing. Measuring just under 6 meters in length, Phoenix is one-sixth the size of the planned Hopper.
"Everyone here is ecstatic," Johanna Bergstroem-Roos of the North European Aerospace Test Range in Kiruna, Sweden, told the Associated Press. "This gives us wind in our sails."
A craft with artificial intelligence?
But what really set the Phoenix mission apart from others was the fact that it steered itself. An onboard computer controlled the navigation of the craft by processing data from radar, laser-distance measurements and satellite navigation, which it then used to determine small changes of direction and altitude until it made its landing.
Officials at EADS Space Transportation also expressed elation. "For the first time, we have proven that the automated landing of this type of aircraft is technically controllable," said Peter Kyr, project manager for the Phoenix program. "This successful test flight is the decisive German contribution on the way to a future reusable space transporter," said the firm's president, Josef Kind.
The launcher of the future
The European Space Agency and EADS hope to complete development of Hopper between 2015 and 2020, when it would go into service as a replacement for the Ariane 5 rocket, the workhorse launcher currently used by the European space program to send satellites and other payloads into orbit. The Hopper shuttle would fly payloads into space and then return to Earth without any help from mission control.
The shuttle is being developed and constructed at EADS' Bremen facilities. So far, €8.2 million has been invested in the project, with the city-state of Bremen contributing €4.3 million and an additional €3.5 million coming from the German Aerospace Center.
Three further tests are planned in the coming days. using data from the flights, researchers will optimize Phoenix and prepare it for further tests at higher elevations. Drops are planned from as high as 25 kilometers using balloons or supersonic aircraft. In the mid-term, EADS also plans to outfit Phoenix with its own engine. Before it is ready for prime time, the shuttle will have to be able to glide from an altitude of 130 kilometers.