The Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) is designed to better inform European scientists on how space objects re-enter the atmosphere.

The data collected by the wedge-shaped craft could help engineers in planning for re-usable rockets or even Mars landers. The IXV will be launched from French Guiana on Wednesday using a Vega rocket, flying eastwards before coming back down in the Pacific Ocean. The European Space Agency (ESA) says that launch is planned for 10:00 a.m. local time, writes Jonathan Amos of the BBC.

ESA's "Mini Spaceplane" Set For Takeoff

Improving ESA re-entry technology

The Vega rocket will carry the IXV to 450 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, before it begins to descend, reaching speeds of 7.5km/s. The craft will be controlled using flaps and thrusters so that it lands as close as possible to a recovery ship west of the Galapagos Islands. Towards the end of the hour and 40 minute flight a parachute system will be deployed to ensure a soft landing.

The IXV is supposed to develop ESA understanding of re-entry technologies, which is currently more limited than the U.S. or Russia.

“Europe is excellent at going to orbit; we have all the launchers, for example. We also have great knowhow in operating complex systems in orbit. But where we are a bit behind is in the knowledge of how to come back from orbit. So, if we are to close the circle – go to orbit, stay in orbit, come back from orbit – this third leg we need to master as well as other spacefaring nations,” said ESA’s project manager Giorgio Tumino.

Pride missions already planned

IXV contains a huge amount of sensors which will collect data designed to inform materials research and improve computer models of re-entry. The data will be sent back before splashdown in case the craft is lost due to an incident.

ESA already has plans for a further project known as Pride (Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe), which is also a re-entry vehicle. This version, however, will have the ability to land on a runway, similar to the X-37B mini shuttle, the mysterious craft operated by the U.S. military.

Details about its missions are top-secret but it is thought to be used in the testing of new technologies for satellites, a role which ESA’s Pride could also fulfill. Pride could also be used to service existing satellites in-orbit, but ESA nations still need to properly define these roles.