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Airbus spaceplane concept aces 3,000ft drop test

Airbus Defence & Space has released pictures and video from the drop test of a runway take-off and landing suborbital spaceplane, which is now moving into an advanced concept stage.

The 1-4 May test campaign, conducted 54nm (100km) off the coast of Singapore, featured a quarter-scale model with active flight control surfaces lifted to 3,000ft by an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e Ecureuil helicopter. The model was piloted from one of seven support ships, validating dynamic conditions for the end-of-flight phase of a return from space, before being retrieved from the sea.

Programme head Stéphane Latieule says the next step is for an early-2015 drop from 30km (19 miles) by stratospheric balloon, to test supersonic flight.

Airbus, he says, sees the programme as a way to develop key technologies for three promising markets – commercial human spaceflight (so-called space tourism), scientific exploitation of suborbital microgravity and the launch to low Earth orbit of small satellites via second and/or third stage rockets that would be released at altitude.

The concept dates to 2007, but Airbus opted to “slow down” development after the financial crisis struck in 2008. However, says Latieule, windtunnel testing and hot-fire trials of the proposed liquid oxygen-methane rocket motor led to the decision this year to proceed with drop testing.

To-date the project has been self-funded, but Airbus is seeking private sector partners. Latieule declines to reveal the budgeted cost, but believes that with extra funding the spaceplane could reach first flight in six years. The May drop test was supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board.

While the Airbus plan is similar to Virgin Galactic’s in its 100km suborbital flight ceiling and market targets, the two space vehicles differ significantly. Where Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is, like NASA’s 1960s X-15, lifted to some 50,000ft by a carrier aircraft before release and ignition of its rocket motor, Airbus’s concept will fly to and from a normal runway with one vehicle.

The Airbus spaceplane will take off with normal turbofan engines and switch to rockets at 10km above the Earth. On the way back down, the craft will glide from its 100km peak to 20km, when the turbofans will be restarted for a normal, powered landing.

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