At the beginning of May, and far from curious onlookers, Airbus Group's Defence and Space Division succeeded in dropping a quarter-scale test version of their rocket propelled SpacePlane.
From this barge, 100 kilometres ( 62 miles ) off the Singapore coast, the 150kg. ( 330 lb. ) test craft bristling with sensors, was hoisted by helicopter to 3,000 metres ( almost 10,000 feet ) altitude, then quite simply released into the air. The aircraft was then piloted from the control post below, finishing its planned flight safely in the South China Sea, before being eagerly recovered by the teams already in place.
The aim of the operation was in fact to validate the dynamic flight conditions encountered at the end of a sub-orbital space flight; a kind of life-sized natural wind tunnel test. Although it is still too early to draw lessons from this first flight, the fact is, that the project, begun over six years ago, is advancing. New trials are envisaged for the end of the year, this time with a drop from a strato-spheric balloon, at an altitude of 30 kilometres ( 18.5 miles ).
Airbus Defense and Space hopes to send its first tourists into space in 2020. After take-off from a conventional airport, the SpacePlane will ignite its rocket engine at 12,000 metres. Climbing vertically at over 3,000 km ( 1,850 miles ) per hour. 90 seconds later, the rocket engine will then shut down leaving the aircraft to continue its upward momentum-driven journey.
At 100 km ( 62 miles ) altitude, the passengers will then enjoy five minutes of weightlessness and be able to see the curvature of the Earth in all its splendour through large portholes. In addition to these extra-terrestrial pleasure trips the SpacePlane could be used to conduct scientific experiments in weightlessness, or to put small satellites into orbit. A way of combining business with pleasure.