The cost of access to space is the major limiting factor in space exploration and space utilization. A reusable launch vehicle is the unanimous solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on-demand space access.

India doesn’t have a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) yet but is in the process of building one. Till now it has developed a prototype technology-demonstrator (TD) that Indian Space Research Organization will use to test its various components. The result will be used to build better prototypes. This will go on till about 2030, which is when the organization expects to have a working vehicle. It will be more than 30 metres long and with an engine of its own.

Why is constructing an RLV tedious?

Building a reusable launch vehicle is not an easy job! Add to is ISRO has budgetary constraints too! The first test, called the hypersonic experiment 1 (HEX1), was conducted on 23rd May 2016.

Reusable launch vehicle launch

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A booster rocket, carrying a winged-body aerospace vehicle (RLV-TD), took off from the spaceport at Sriharikota, some 100 km from Chennai, at 7 a.m. It climbed for about 90 seconds before its burnout. Coasting to an altitude of 56 km, it was separated from the booster. RLV-TD inclined further to 65 km, an ISRO release said. From an altitude of 65 km, the vehicle made a re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) and steered by its navigation guidance and control system for safe descent, it glided down to the defined landing spot in the Bay of Bengal, 450 km from Sriharikota.

India's Reusable Launch Vehicle

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Some insights into the launch of Reusable Launch Vehicle

  1. The RLV-TD is unlikely to be recovered from sea during this experiment as it is expected that the vehicle will disintegrate on impact with water since it is not designed to float.
  2. The purpose of the experiment is to help the shuttle glide over a virtual runway in the Bay of Bengal, situated 500 km from the coast.
  3. India’s frugal engineers believe the solution to reducing cost of launching satellites into orbit is to recycle the rocket or make it reusable.
  4. Scientists at ISRO believe that they could lower the cost by as much as 10 times if reusable technology triumphs, bringing it down to $2,000 per kg.
  5. Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, states, “These are just the first baby steps towards the big Hanuman leap.”
  6. The final version will take at least 10-15 years to get ready.
  7. The making of the Indian space shuttle or RLV-TD has taken five years and the government has invested Rs. 95 crore in the project. This flight will test the capability of the vehicle to survive a re-entry at speeds higher than that of sound.
  8. During the descent phase, small thrusters will help the vehicle navigate itself to the landing area.
  9. This technology aims to take oxygen from the atmosphere instead of carrying it all the way, says K. Sivan, Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.
  10. The air-breathing propulsion system aims at using oxygen present in the atmosphere up to 50 km from the earth’s surface to burn the fuel stored in the rocket.

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