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By Irene Klotz
PARIS (Reuters) - The European Space Agency is preparing to launch an experimental reusable spaceship next summer following a successful atmospheric test flight this week, officials said at the Paris Airshow.
A mock-up built by Thales Alenia Space was dropped from a helicopter flying 1.9 miles above the Mediterranean near Sardinia on Wednesday to check its handling and parachute system, company officials said.
The 14.4 foot long (4.4 meter) craft, known as "IXV" as it is an intermediate experimental vehicle, splashed down in the ocean and was retrieved by an awaiting ship.
The test flight clears IXV for a follow-on demonstration run beyond the Earth's atmosphere in August next year. That program, in turn, paves the way for an orbital prototype dubbed "Pride", slated to launch in 2018.
The aim is to help Europe develop an autonomous atmospheric re-entry system that could be used on vehicles flying experiments in space, Roberto Provera, director of space transportation programs for Thales Alenia Space, told Reuters.
"It's the first time in Europe that we've tried something like this," Provera said, adding that it could eventually be used to carry people.
The vehicles are similar to but smaller than the U.S. military's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles, built by Boeing. Like NASA's now-retired space shuttles, they have "lifting body" designs shaped to produce lift without airplane-like wings.
For its next test, Europe will launch another IXV vehicle on a Vega rocket from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.
Once at an altitude of about 199 miles, the IXV will separate from the rocket and climb to about 267 miles before slamming back into the atmosphere at a speed of about 4.7 miles per second and parachuting into the Pacific Ocean.
Several U.S. firms are also developing reusable spaceships. Designs include traditional capsules, as well as "lifting body" vehicles.
Privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp., for example, is testing a vehicle called Dream Chaser that has NASA backing.
The U.S. space agency, which retired its space shuttles in 2011, is seeking commercial options to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a permanently staffed research outpost that flies about 250 miles above Earth.
Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, is testing a suborbital passenger vehicle called SpaceShipTwo, expected to start flying next year.
The U.S. military has two experimental unmanned reusable spaceships developed under its X-37B program. One is in orbit.
President Vladimir Putin told astronauts in orbit in April that Russia would send up the first manned flights from its own soil in 2018, using a new launch pad he said would help the once-pioneering space power explore deep space and the moon.
Thales Alenia said it has not yet finalized a price for Pride with the European Space Agency, but expects it will cost about the same as the IXV program, or roughly 200 million Euros ($264 million).
Thales Alenia Space is a joint venture owned 67 percent by France's Thales and 33 percent by Italy's Finmeccanica.
($1 = 0.7590 euros)
(Editing by James Regan)