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With its shuttle, ISRO on low-cost Space Odyssey

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 23, 2016

This photograph, released by the Indian Space Research Organisation, shows a scale version of a Reusable Launch Vehicle as it blasts off from Sriharikota

Successful test flight of Reusable Launch Vehicle can cut satellite placement cost

The successful flight test of the winged Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) from Sriharikota Spaceport on Monday signals Indian space scientists growing mastery of the launch vehicle technology.

In short, it means, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will in the near future be able to offer launch services at rates way below what they now are and with best results, too. Second, it announced India’s joining the exclusive club of nations and companies with the ability to reuse rocket launchers.

With the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the space agency has an enviable record of 30 straight successful flights, with multiple payloads put safely into orbit. The GSLV, with the MKIII version (payload 4-6 tonnes), though struggling will catapult ISRO into the business of placing heavier satellites.

The challenge here is to ensure that the launch vehicles are reliable, have higher payload carrying capacity, and can be manufactured at low costs. This means the GSLV will have to carry 3.5 tonnes (from 2 tonnes) efficiently, thus achieving a significant drop in the cost per kg for the satellite it launches.

The Indian advantage

The USP of the Indian space programme is its low-cost and high efficiency. The biggest detriment to any space Odyssey is the prohibitive cost of access to space. Reusable rocket technology is the best option to cut costs. Here, India has taken the lead and demonstrated its ability to make the difference. For instance, the Mars Orbitter Mission (MOM), costing around ₹450 crore, is touted as being ‘dirt cheap’, compared to international players.

The ₹95 crore, 1.75 tonne, indigenous winged RLV, with its distinctive twin tail-fins — India’s own version of the space shuttle — is a technology demonstrator. Its goal is to put satellites into both the polar and geostationary orbits around the Earth and return safe for another mission. It should help the ISRO cut launch costs by a tenth.

In the journey thus far, ISRO has validated a range of critical technologies including auto navigation, guidance and control, reusable thermal protection system, and re-entry mission management. Interestingly, Defence scientists have a high degree of competence in the re-entry technology for guided missile technologies, which they have demonstrated in the Agni systems.

Two stages

The technology for the RLV is two-stage-to-orbit concept. The winged first stage consists of an air breathing propulsion system that burns up the onboard fuel even as it takes in air in its flight path. In the second stage, the payload is taken up to the intended height into the atmosphere, separated and the launcher returns to Earth to land on a runway.

The Monday launch saw the RLV lift off from the launch pad, then hoisted into the atmosphere on the special rocket booster for a peak altitude of over 65 km and released for its re-entry into the atmosphere before its splashdown in the Bay of Bengal, the ISRO said while describing it as a preliminary step in the development of a reusable rocket.

The reusable rocket technology has been the US space agency NASA’s forte. It has flown a range of space shuttles — Enterprise, Discovery, Challenger, and Columbia — since the early 1980s. But the Columbia tragic explosion, in which Indian-origin astronaut Kalpana Chawla perished, was a big setback for NASA.

Elsewhere n the world too, many concepts and technologies are under development. The Chinese are trying a para-glider type wings approach, the Swiss Space systems has Soar, while the French and Germans have a joint programme, and Ukraine has its own version coming up.

In the past two decades, space has attracted private companies and the multi-billionaires of the world for both development and tourism. Elon Musk-promoted SpaceX is among the most aggressive in the business. Its Falcon 9 rocket has carried satellites into orbit. It has also reached cargo to the International Space Station through its Dragon capsule. Blue Origin New Shepherd rocket has proved the vertical take off and landing rocket, which can reach space and then return to land.

With, ISRO in the air, a Star Wars is on.

Published on May 23, 2016
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