India tests home-grown space plane demonstrator

The RLV-TD space plane being prepared for launch. Image courtesy of ISRO.
The RLV-TD space plane being prepared for launch. Image courtesy of ISRO.

India’s first ever indigenously manufactured spacecraft was successfully tested today.

The Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) was launched atop a small solid-fueled rocket earlier this morning by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

At an altitude of 65km the RLV-TD was released from the rocket, where it began a hypersonic glide through the upper atmosphere.

During this hypersonic glide phase, the vehicle tested re-entry navigation and control systems, before performing an ocean landing in the Bay of Bengal.

The RLV-TD launched today was a scale model demonstrator approximately 6.5m long and weighing in at 1.75 tons. It was used to test the feasibility of hypersonic re-entry and recovery for use in a future space plane vehicle.

The final craft will be likely be significantly larger in size, however exact specifications have yet to be released.

While the final vehicle is designed to be recovered, an ISRO official confirmed to The Hindu that this vehicle tested today would not be retrieved from the ocean.

Nonetheless, by all accounts the test was a complete success.

“Launch of India’s first indigenous space shuttle RLV-TD is the result of the industrious efforts of our scientists. Congrats to them,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter.

The cost of developing the RLV-TD vehicle is estimated to have been approximately $15m.

Despite the optimism following the successful test of the Indian space plane concept, ISRO has stated that a full-scale system will likely not be ready for another 10-15 years and is dependent on continued funding.

Space plane concepts being re-examined

While NASA has mothballed its Space Shuttle fleet, ending its use of space planes in 2011, a new wave of development into this technology is underway.

Outside of India, private spaceflight companies including Virgin Galactic and Sierra Nevada has been spending big to develop reusable launch systems implementing these technologies.

Beyond the cost-reductions resulting from reusable vehicles, such space planes can also land on conventional aircraft runways, reducing the need for complex and expensive infrastructure.

These companies and nations however will have to contend with SpaceX which is making quick progress with another kind of reusable system – retropropulsive rockets – able to land on very small pieces of land, both on Earth and on other planets.