The European Space Agency is developing its first spaceship designed to return back through Earth’s atmosphere, a key technology for flying and returning not only experiments, but perhaps eventually people as well.

The first step of the project is called the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, or IXV for short. On Wednesday, a full-scale mockup was dropped from a helicopter flying 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) above the Mediterranean Sea near Sardinia, Italy, to test its flight handling and parachute system.

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“It’s another important step for the project,” Roberto Provera director of space transportation programs for Thales Alenia Space told reporters at the Paris Air Show.

The drop test clears the way for Europe to proceed with the launch in August 2014 of an IXV aboard a Vega rocket for a spaceflight  up to about 267 miles (430 kilometers) above the planet.

From that altitude, the vehicle should be moving at about 4.6 miles per second (7.5 km per second) when it slams back through the atmosphere.

A follow-on program called Pride is expected in 2018 with an orbital flight.

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“Its the first time in Europe that we’ve tried something like this,” Provera told Discovery News.

The vehicles are similar, but smaller, than the U.S. military’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles, one of which is currently in orbit.

“The idea of the two vehicles is very similar, but the size and the costs of the projects are very different,” Provera said.

In total, the demonstration programs are expected to cost about $560 million.

The IXV spaceplane weighs about 3,970 pounds (1,800 kilograms) and is about 14.4 feet long (4.4 meters) and about 7.2 feet wide (2.2 meters). It is called a “lifting body” because its shape generates lift without wings.

To control its flight, the IXV will have thrusters and two moveable rear body flaps. By comparison, the X-37B vehicles weigh about 11,000 pounds (almost 5,000 kg) and are about 29 feet (9 meters) long.

Image credit: ESA