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Monday, Jun 10, 2002

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ISRO dreams of building reusable launch vehicle

Madhumathi D.S.


THE GSLV is as good as achieved and a moon mission is round the corner sometime this decade; ISRO is now dreaming of building a reusable launch vehicle (RLV).

An RLV is also what everyone in the small spacefarer club is feverishly working at. After all, it would make economic sense to bring the cost per launch from the present $30,000 a kg of payload down to a tenth of it. Today, space transporter agencies happily collect around $60 million per load of around two tonnes.

But an Indian RLV could be some 20 years away. While no one is quiet there yet, the US fleet of four shuttles like Endeavour and Discovery come the closest to it.

"There is a lot of work ahead before it can be evolved," said Mr D. Narayana Moorthi, Director, ISRO Launch Vehicle Programme Office. "After all, our ultimate goal is to have low cost access to space and the industry can be part of it."

As a first step, he told Business Line, "We are working on an RLV demonstrator. We are looking at possible technology, materials and avionics this would need and at how to bring down the number of stages from the present 3 and 4 (in the GSLV and the PSLV).

The current talk is about a TSTO (two-stage two-orbit) mode which could eventually become a single stage vehicle."

Currently, the first two stages of the boosters fall into sea but their recovery is not economical.

A feasibility study will be taken up shortly by the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thiruvananthapuram and involve other lead centres in space transportation such as Sriharikota Centre, along with leading national labs like NAL in Bangalore. NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia and Japan are all chasing the RLV, while the US shuttle where the orbiter returns is one model that is closest to an RLV.

Ideally, though, the costs of readying it for the next launch could do with heavy pruning.

Meanwhile, another `recover and reuse' mode is not far off. Part of ISRO's technology development programme, its first Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE) is slated for 2003-04 and another one during 2005-06. Under the SRE, a 600-kg small satellite will be launched as a co-passenger on a PSLV. The capsule will be launched to orbit for three to 30 days, `de-boosted' with the help of parachutes and recovered.

It will conduct micro-gravity and thermal protection environments meant to support future advanced missions.

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