India to demonstrate reusable launch vehicle technology

Bangalore, May 20 (IANS) India will use a mini-rocket with a booster to fly a winged reusable launch vehicle into lower earth orbit on May 23 for demonstrating the technology its space agency developed, a senior official said on Friday.

“All going well, especially the weather, we will send on May 23 the nine-metre rocket, with a winged reusable launch vehicle demonstrator (RLV-TD) on its top into the atmosphere, about 70 km from the earth, and bring it back to test the technology we have developed indigenously,” Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) director K. Sivan told IANS.

The state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has designed and built the 1.7-tonne RLV-TD as a flying testbed to evaluate technologies developed to reduce the cost of launching rockets for carrying satellites into the earth’s polar and geo-stationary orbits.

The experimental launch will be from ISRO’s spaceport at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, about 80 km northeast of Chennai off the Bay of Bengal coast.

“The exercise will enable us collect data on hypersonic speed, autonomous landing ans cruise flight using air-breathing propulsion,” Sivan said ahead of the launch.

Rockets for launching satellites and space exploration are made at the space agency’s VSSC at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.

The long-term objective of this mission is to reduce the launch cost to one-tenth of the present through a reusable vehicle.

Space agencies worldwide spend, on average, $20,000 to make and use medium-to-heavy weight rockets to launch satellites.

The first technology demonstrator will conduct the hypersonic flight experiment, followed by landing test, return flight experiment and scramjet propulsion test, using a 15-tonne rocket with nine tonne of propellants (solid fuel) as a booster.

“The 10-minute flight will demonstrate the hypersonic and aero-thermo dynamics of the winged re-entry vehicle, with autonomous mission management to land after passing through very high temperatures during re-entry,” Sivan noted.

As the cost of access to space is a prohibitive in space exploration and space utilization, a reusable launch vehicle will be low-cost for on-demand space access.

The space agency’s telemetary, tracking and command network (Istrac) in Bangalore will collect data from the vehicle spanning vertical take-off, its release in space by the rocket booster for manoeurves and its plunge into the sea in the Bay of Bengal.

The vehicle, however, will not be recovered, being a ‘dummy’.

“In subsequent test flights, we will attempt to land the reusable vehicle at a specific location on land like an aircraft does on a runway so that we can again use it for launching more satellites,” Sivan asserted.

The space agency is developing the RLV and its support systems from the budget earmarked annually for technology development and research and development.

The cost of developing the RLV technology is estimated to be about Rs.100 crore ($15 million).

“Developing the complex technology and using a reusable vehicle will take a decade as we have to build them with our own resources,” Sivan added.

Besides the US (NASA) and Russia (Roscomos), Japan (Jaxa) and the European Space Agency (ESA) have developed the RLV technology.

NASA, however, grounded its space shuttle programme in 2011 after using its reusable vehicles like Discovery, Endeavor, Columbia and Challenger as a space transportation system for over three decades since 1981 to launch various missions, including the International Space Station (ISS) and the Hubble telescope.

(Fakir Balaji can be contacted at



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