The ESA is preparing a new test flight for the agency's Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), which kind of looks like a car-sized, bullet-shaped space shuttle. Without wings.
According to Gizmodo, the unmanned test will take the craft 260 miles up into a suborbital trajectory, where the ESA will track its descent at 16,000+ mph. The test flight will basically simulate the typical return situation for a low-orbit mission.
The craft is cram-packed with data-collecting tech focused on power use, data processing and telemetry, not to mention a multi-stage supersonic parachute, actuators and flotation devices. The whole package is protected by ceramic and ablative thermal shells and carbon-fibre reinforced polymer structural panels. Sadly, all that tech takes up the space where a pilot might go.
The aim of the mission is to record a boatload of data as to how the craft handles re-entry, where it will reach supersonic and hypersonic speeds as it barrels back toward our planet on the way to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Check out some photos of the craft being constructed and prepared for launch below, via the ESA and NASA. The ESA has also compiled a nifty video on the craft's creation.