India tests native reusable vehicle Technology will help slash launch costs  

  • Taking baby steps towards developing a reusable launch vehicle capable of sending spacecraft into orbit and returning to the earth’s surface, the Indian Space Research Organisation on Monday successfully tested the country’s first winged-body aerospace vehicle.
  • The technology, when developed completely, would launch spacecraft, including satellites, into space and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere withstanding extreme pressure and heat conditions and land in an intended spot, helping to cut costs on launch vehicles substantially.
  • “We had three objectives for Monday’s launch
  • To test the characterisation of the aero-thermo dynamics of hypersonic flights;
  • to test the autonomous mission management of hypersonic vehicles; and
  • to test the necessary re-entry technology for the vehicles,”
  •  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, where 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.
  • The total flight duration was about 12.8 minutes.


  • ‘Fantastic success’
  • The mission was “a fantastic success, which met all its objectives,” Dr. Sivan said. The winged space plane’s ability to fly at hypersonic speed was demonstrated. The mission management of its re-entry into the atmosphere at a hypersonic speed of Mach 4.9 was proven. The vehicle withstood the fiery re-entry, proving the re-usable thermal protection systems wrapped around it. Then it touched down in the predicted area in the Bay of Bengal, 425 km east of Sriharikota. “A space plane flying at hypersonic speed is a new venture for the ISRO. Till now, we were only doing rockets,” Dr. Sivan said. N. Shyam Mohan, Project Director, RLV-TD, called it “a clean flight.” The separation of the RLV/space plane from the booster rocket at an altitude of 56 km was “smooth” and “all controls worked as specified.” The hypersonic re-entry was perfect. Dr. Shyam Mohan said the mission’s complexity came from the fact that the space plane, which sat on top of the booster rocket, had to be separated from the rocket at a specified altitude. “We are really excited about the mission’s success,” Dr. Shyam Mohan said. “We are now confident of developing a winged, reusable launch system.”

The test flight of the RLV-TD on Monday represented the first step towards the ISRO programme to master the reusable launch vehicle technology. Termed the Hypersonic Flight Experiment, it was the first of a sequence of four test flights to validate various technologies. Designed and developed by Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at a cost of Rs. 95 crore, the RLV-TD weighing 1.75 tonnes used a thermal protection system (TPS) including 600 heat-resistant silica tiles and a Carbon-Carbon nose cap to withstand the high temperature during atmospheric re-entry. The first Indian aircraft structure to fly up to Mach 5, the double delta wing RLV posed a challenge for VSSC engineers to manage the high instability of a winged body mounted on a booster rocket during launch. The design of the air frame, development of mono propellant thrusters for guidance and control and advanced avionics for mission management were other challenges. The new developments for RLV-TD include the composite movable fin, flush air data system to measure the surface pressure on the aircraft, onboard computer, high resolution data acquisition system, lithium ion battery, patch antennas and radar altimeter. As many as 600 engineers from ISRO centres, National Aerospace Laboratories, IITs and Indian Institute of Science were involved in the development of the RLV-TD over a period of eight years.

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Amit Singh

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