The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) rocket is in the final stages of its pre-launch testings and is expected to be test launched before July-end this year. The space agency plans to showcase a vehicle that can go to space and return and then be reused for another mission. The relevance of this mission’s success lies in the fact that the majority of the cost of a space mission is of the launch vehicle which can’t be reused generally. The reusable launch vehicle, ISRO believes, can bring down mission costs to around 10% of previous costs and can give a boost to ISRO’s commercial satellite launch business, which faces tough competition in the international market from SpaceX and industry leader French-based ArianneSpace.

ISRO spends around Rs 140 crore on a PSLV launch. The entire cost of such a mission is much higher which cuts profit margins in commercial operations. For the Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO spent Rs 450 crore. The launch itself cost ISRO a whopping Rs 140 crore due to 100% “perishable equipment” which can’t be reused.

According to conservative estimates, if ISRO can reuse its launch vehicles, it can offer to carry payloads for customers like satellites at a cost of around Rs 3.3 lakh per kg, instead of the over Rs 14.1 lakh per kg it recently charged for DMC3 satellite launches.

ISRO’s biggest competitor SpaceX offers launch services on average at around Rs 3-3.2 lakh per kg due to its reusable Falcon 9 rocket. ISRO can reclaim its lost ground if it can swiftly and successfully complete its reusable launch vehicle programme.

According to information on ISRO’s website, “The cost of access to space is the major deterrent in space exploration and space utilisation. A reusable launch vehicle is the unanimous solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on-demand space access. The Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration Program or RLV-TD is a series of technology demonstration missions that have been considered as a first step towards realising a Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) fully re-usable vehicle.”

“A Winged RLV-TD has been configured to act as a flying test bed to evaluate various technologies, namely, hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, powered cruise flight and hypersonic flight using air-breathing propulsion. These technologies will be developed in phases through a series of experimental flights. The first in the series of experimental flights is the hypersonic flight experiment (HEX) followed by the landing experiment (LEX), return flight experiment (REX) and scramjet propulsion experiment (SPEX),” the information on the ISRO website adds.

The RLV-TD is on its way to Bengaluru where it will go through acoustic testing to make sure that it can fare well during the launch, stay safe and intact and at the same time function flawlessly. This will also boost ISRO’s long-held plans for a manned mission to space.

The RLV-TD was developed by Thumba-based Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). ISRO’s mission is to launch the shuttle to an altitude of 70 km and then carry out its soft-landing in the Bay of Bengal. The agency has done several mission simulations.

A scientist who is part of the testing teams told this newspaper: “We have done thousands of simulations. The results suggest that the rocket will sink to the bottom of the Bay of Bengal after its soft landing. But we are still working to fix that problem. I’m sure we’ll be able to figure out a way.”

“We have fitted the vehicle with 600 heat resistant tiles on its drag surface to protect it from burning when it descends. The nose is protected by Carbon-Carbon. These tiles can easily stand temperatures around 1,200 degrees Celsius.”

ISRO sources said that the first full test launch is expected by end-July this year. Several other test flights will follow to refine the vehicle.

“If things go as per plan, the vehicle will see the operational green light by 2025,” the scientist said.

ISRO had plans to first test launch the RLV-TD on 28 December 2015. However, due to technical problems, the test launches were postponed to February 2016, which was again postponed to April 2016. The launch is now set for end of July this year. ISRO said that many of the technical issues that caused the delays have been solved.


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