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The European Space Agency (ESA) has succesfully landed its prototype unmanned shuttle, Phoenix. The ESA hopes Phoenix will halve the cost of commercial satellite launches, and prove a useful money spinner for the agency.

The test flight took place in Sweden this Saturday. Phoenix, seven metres long and with a wingspan of four metres, was dropped from a helicopter from a height of 2,400m for its 90-second glide to the landing runway. More test flights are to come, with new and tricky challenges for Phoenix, such as changing direction, and getting dropped at funny angles. Phoenix is a test vehicle for landing without humans: it uses a combination of radar, GPS data, and laser altimeters to navigate, as well sensors checking pressure and speed.

Phoenix is one of a raft of proposals for a reusable launch vehicle (RLV), New Scientist reports. The only one currently in operation is NASA's Space Shuttle, an expensive old bird, and set for the scrap heap in just six years.

Shuttle is also no good for satellite launches, and it is this gap in the market that Phoenix could fill. Current launch costs stand at a not-to-be-sniffed-at $15,000 per kg of payload. Imagine the excess luggage bill. Phoenix's designers at EADS Space Transportation reckon on halving the price, if all goes well.

The grown-up, fully operational version of Phoenix, tentatively named Hopper, would fly to a height of 130km before firing its payload into orbit on an expendable rocket. But first it will have to make it through the tests. The next target is dropping the craft from 25km. The ESA aims to do this within three years. ®

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