- India is quietly building the Reusable Launch Vehicle, a swadeshi Space Shuttle
- The RLV is expected to make the flight to space.
- There are a series of tests planned to show its hypersonic flight and jet engines.
- The RLV design has double delta wings and twin vertical tails.
The Indian space agency is ready for its new development by making a swadeshi Space Shuttle. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has said it is a Reusable Launch Vehicle or RLV.
If the testing I’d found to be alright it would be soon seen flying over the Science City in Challakere, Karnataka, where the first landing experiment is being planned. S Somanath, Chairman of ISRO says
“We are working silently on reusable rocket technology, with a very low budget, low cost, and low investment.”
In the past USA and Russia have successfully created full-fledged winged space vehicles. Russia/USSR flew its experiment called Buran only once in 1988 and the program was then stopped.
The USA made 135 flights on the Space Shuttle and in 2011 it was stopped. Since then new experiments done by the USA, China, and India have made them the only countries having an active program of re-useable rocket development. India’s full-fledged test of reusable launch vehicles may happen only in the 2030s. ISRO’s reusability is much more than the rocket stage recovery experiments carried out by Space X and hence it will take time to fully become functional.
The new vehicle will weigh nearly four tonnes and it will be flown into the sky on a helicopter then it will be released from a height of about three kilometers and from a distance of three kilometers from the runway. “The vehicle then has to navigate, glide and successfully land unpiloted and autonomously at the defense runway in Challakare,” says Somanath.
This experiment using the lower version is called Reusable Launch Vehicle – Landing Experiment or the RLV – LEX. This is basically an airdrop test to understand the aerodynamics of the airframe which has been developed itself by ISRO.
The development program for reusable rockets started first in May 23, 2016, ISRO had successfully tested the Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) when a 1.75-tonne orbiter was flown into a sub-orbital flight on a special rocket around 65 kilometers above the Bay of Bengal from Sriharikota.
The flight flew for 773 seconds and attained the maximum velocity of Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. The physical landing was conducted on an artificial runway some 450 kilometers away from Sriharikota on water. In this hypersonic landing experiment in 2016, the RLV-TD HEX which was not designed to float sank into the sea and the experiment failed.
ISRO called it ‘successful’ and the era of reusability started with the Indian space agency. Since then engineers at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram have been seriously working to solve this complex technology.
Recently, three attempts have been made already to test the glide capability and the last attempt in April 2022 was stopped because a cyclone and heavy winds started at the landing site. Somanath says there is one small window available to do this unique experiment before the monsoon hits the Chitradurga district and all efforts are being made to make sure it happens successfully. Indian space scientists are trying to master a far more complex reusable rocket.
since ISRO wants to learn how to recover and bring back to Earth the upper stage of the rocket, which is usually lost in space. “The upper stage of the rocket has the most complex and most expensive electronics and if one can recover the upper stage it would certainly bring down the cost of rocket launching dramatically, also reduce space debris”, explains Somanath.
In fact, the much wanted reusable rocket demonstrations done by Space X are only of the lower stages of the rocket which are basically metal blanks and comparatively much cheaper as they do not have expensive electronics.
The ‘Swadeshi Space Shuttle’ is actually a two-staged step to orbit vehicle. The reusable winged vehicle is vertically on the top of the rocket which boosts it into space and puts it into an orbit. Once that is done the winged vehicle separates and orbits the Earth.
As it’s happening in Kerala they have decided that once the mission is completed, the mission control center sends commands to the still in orbit `swadeshi space shuttle’ for it to de-orbit and then successfully land at a runway that may be built at Sriharikota.
To make the rocket leave its orbit and survive the dense atmosphere where the heat generated due to friction can lead to temperatures on the surface of about 3000-4000°C, it needs an understanding of complex materials and the software has to be strong enough to handle the random landing.
Lightweight heat-resistant silica tiles and carbon-carbon fused tiles have already been developed by ISRO. If the landing experiment succeeds, the next big milestone will be to conduct a re-entry experiment where the lower model of RLV will orbit the earth and then be brought back to India.
If robotic re-usable vehicles are successful in India then expensive satellites whose fuel has been emptied could be called back and brought back to send again, costly observation platforms can be used again and again, the uses are many and bringing down the cost of access to space is just one factor.
In the future pharmaceutical compounds could be made in near zero-gravity environments, biological experiments could be done and recovered from space and even human organs could be grown in space and brought back to Earth are the claims made by Somanath.
“The upper stage of the rocket is very precious there are also huge strategic advantages of mastering reusability of the ultra-expensive upper stage”, says Somanath.
India is slowly working to achieve this important technology so that the country is not left behind in the space race of developing economical and advanced space technology.