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Bangalore, Jan. 11

NATIONAL space agency ISRO said it has achieved an early step in the race for low-cost, reusable space vehicle technology with a brief demonstration of its scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet).

"As such technologies are in a very nascent stage of development the world over, ISRO considers this achievement as a major technology breakthrough in air-breathing propulsion," an ISRO release said.

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSCC), Thiruvananthapuram, has designed, developed and tested the scramjet as part of the ongoing work on air-breathing propulsion. VSSC demonstrated the scramjet for seven seconds at Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound) through a series of ground tests.

The complex air-breathing rockets under development use atmospheric oxygen during flight, while today's rockets carry both the oxygen and the fuel. As such they will be lighter, more efficient and cost some 15 times less than the conventional ones.

The next step would be to test it on ground at Sriharikota, enhance to Mach 10 and then on a Rohini sounding rocket, "which would be a major achievement," a spokesman said. An actual rocket using this technology would be at least 10 years away.

According to the release, "Other than US, which has recently carried out in-flight demonstration of supersonic combustion for a short duration (at a record Mach 10), work related to supersonic combustor designs in Japan, China, Russia, Australia, Europe and others are either in their initial or ground testing phase."

Current launchers cannot be re-used. The cost per kg of payload of such systems is a high $12,000-15,000 per kg. To make space transport more affordable, this cost has to be cut to $500-1,000 per kg. It will need both, a reusable and recoverable system and a more efficient propulsion system like air-breathing rockets. This is what space-faring nations are working at.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 12, 2006)
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