The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully launched on Monday, May 23, its mini ‘space shuttle’, marking the first step towards launch vehicle reusability. The Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) took to the skies from the First Launch Pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota atop an HS9 solid rocket booster. Liftoff occurred at 7:00 a.m. local time (9:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday, May 22).
The nearly two-metric-ton small winged spacecraft is about 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) long and resembles a U.S. Space Shuttle. It is a scaled-down model of the reusable launch vehicle that ISRO is currently developing.
After liftoff, the HS9 rocket started its short vertical climb, burning its engine for about one and a half minute. When the booster reached an altitude of approximately 35 miles (56 km), the spacecraft separated from the rocket and continued its ascent to an altitude of 43 miles (70 km). Then it began its descent followed by atmospheric re-entry when it was moving as fast as five times the speed of sound.
The spaceplane successfully glided down to the defined landing spot over Bay of Bengal, located about 280 miles (450 km) from the launch site. The whole mission lasted approximately 12 minutes and 50 seconds.
"The mission was successful. And the RLV-TD is healthy and floating on the sea," said M.C. Dathan, former director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram.
RLV-TD was built at VSSC by a team of 600 scientists over five years. The mission was initially planned to be carried out in July 2015, however it was postponed due to ISRO’s decision to prioritize its commercial launches. The Mission Readiness Review for the launch was conducted on May 11.
"Launch of India's first indigenous space shuttle RLV-TD is the result of the industrious efforts of our scientists. Congrats to them," India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet.
According to an ISRO spokesperson, everything went as planned. He added that the winged spacecraft will not be recovered from the sea.
The vehicle is expected to disintegrate on impact with water since it is not designed to float.
During the flight, ISRO tested critical technologies such as autonomous navigation, guidance and control, reusable thermal protection system and re-entry mission management.
Monday’s mission was named Hypersonic Flight Experiment (HEX). For this flight, the spacecraft was fitted with a variety of sensors including load cells, temperature and pressure sensors to gather crucial information about the vehicle’s aero-thermal characteristics in the hypersonic regime.
Other objectives of HEX include: characterizing induced loads during hypersonic re-entry into the atmosphere, recovering the vehicle from the sea, assessing the performance of the carbon fiber used in construction of the nose of the vehicle, and demonstrating first stage separation sequencing.
HEX is a first step for India towards developing a reusable spaceplane, called by ISRO the Two Stage To Orbit (TSTO) fully reusable vehicle. The final version of this spacecraft is expected to be completed in about 10 to 15 years.
In its next test, LEX (Landing Experiment), the RLV-TD will be dropped from an aircraft and complete a demonstration of an autonomous runway landing. India plans also the return flight experiment (REX), and the scramjet propulsion experiment (SPEX).
ISRO hopes that its reusable vehicle will cut satellite launch costs from $5,000 to $500 per every 2 lbs. (1 kg). It will help India to become more competitive in the launch services market.
“Development of RLV is a technical challenge and it involves development of cutting edge technologies. The magnitude of cost reduction depends on development and realization of fully reusable launch vehicle and its degree of reusability,” Jitendra Singh, India’s Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, said in March 2015.
Monday’s test was the first time when India flew a winged body and brought it back to land on a make-shift runway.