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Made in India: ISRO set to test a 'swadeshi' space shuttle

News Agencies | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is set to make history as it prepares to embark on a first-of-its-kind space flight.

The Indian space agency is all set to undertake the maiden launch of its very own indigenous version of a 'space shuttle' - the Reusable Launch Vehicle - Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) - that has been completely made-in-India.

Ahead of the final countdown, final touches were given to the RLV-TD's sleek, winged body - almost the weight and size of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) - at Sriharikota on 15 May.

While major world powers have abandoned the idea of a winged, reusable launch vehicle, India's frugal engineers believe that the solution to reducing the cost of launching satellites into orbit is to recycle the rocket or make it reusable.

Scientists at ISRO believe that they could reduce the cost of launching stuff into space by as much as ten times if reusable technology succeeds - a move that might bring it down to $2,000 per kg.

A 'swadeshi' space shuttle

If all goes well, India's space port at Sriharikota on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh will witness the launch of the indigenous made Reusable Launch Vehicle - Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) - possibly before the monsoon sets in.

This will be the first time that the ISRO will launch a space craft, which actually has delta wings. After its launch, it will be glided back onto a virtual runway in the Bay of Bengal.

It is unlikely that RLV-TD will be recovered from sea during this experiment as it is expected that the vehicle will disintegrate on impact with water - since it is not designed to float.

The purpose of the experiment is not to see it float but to glide and navigate from a velocity five times higher than the speed of sound onto a designated virtual runway in the Bay of Bengal some 500 km from the coast.

The RLV-TD, which looks similar to the American space shuttle, is being experimented upon on a scale model which is almost six times smaller than the final version.

K Sivan, director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, says, "These are just the first baby steps towards the big Hanuman leap."

The final version will take at least 10-15 years to get ready since designing a human-rated reusable rocket is no easy task.

Who has achieved this feat so far?

The only countries that have attempted operational flights of a space shuttle are America, which flew its space shuttle 135 times and then retired it in 2011. Since then it has lost its capacity to send astronauts in space on American made rockets.

The Russians made only a single space shuttle, called Buran, which flew into space just once in 1989.

After that, the French and Japanese have made some experimental flights. From available literature, it seems the Chinese have never attempted a space shuttle.

Some private billionaires with very active support from Nasa have been trying to master vertical lift-off and vertical landing as part of trying to recycle rocket engines.

Earlier this year, South African-born billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX landed its Falcon-9 rocket onto a sea-based platform.

On the same lines, the company Blue Origin owned by Jeff Bezos, landed its New Shepard rocket on land in Texas. Bezos, another billionaire, made it big by building the Amazon online trading platform.

When Nasa chief General Charles Bolden was in New Delhi recently, he said that the competition to reduce the cost of launching satellites into space has now become a fight among billionaires.

Will ISRO succeed where other super powers have failed? Only time will tell.

India's journey

India embarked on making its own version of the space shuttle over 15 years ago. However, work in earnest only began five years ago when a dedicated team of engineers and scientists plunged into making the RLV-TD a reality.

The government has invested Rs 95 crore in the project. This flight will test the capability of the vehicle to survive a re-entry at speeds higher than that of sound so it is called a hyper sonic experiment (HEX).

Later, in the next few flights the RLV will be subjected to a landing experiment and another return flight experiment.

Once these are successful, ISRO will then decide on what should be the final configuration of the Reusable Launch Vehicle.

One key technology that the scientists at VSSC had to develop was to make materials that can withstand the high temperatures that the exterior of the vehicle is faced with as it comes back into the dense atmosphere after its journey through near vacuum in space.

The friction from the air turns the exterior like a red-hot iron plate. To be able to withstand these 5000-7000 degrees Celsius temperature the scientists have developed very lightweight heat resistant silica tiles that are plastered on the underbelly of the so-called Indian space plane.

The nose cone takes the brunt of the high temperatures and is made up of a special carbon-carbon composite that can withstand high temperature. These special materials are necessary to protect the insides of the vehicle where the temperature should never go higher than 50 degrees Celsius.

In fact, it is these heat resistant tiles and thermal coating that failed on the American Space Shuttle, Columbia that resulted in the death of Indian born American astronaut Kalpana Chawla's in 2003. Consequently, ISRO has laid a lot of emphasis on the thermal management of the RLV.

The 6.5-m-long 'aeroplane'-like spacecraft will weigh 1.75 tons and will be hoisted into the atmosphere on a special rocket booster.

The special booster or the first stage is powered using a solid fuel and it will hoist the RLV-TD experiment to about 70 km into the atmosphere from where the descent will begin.

During the descent phase, small thrusters will help the vehicle navigate on to the exact spot where it is supposed to land. Ships, satellites and radars will monitor its descent.

The current experimental version has no undercarriage so it cannot be brought back onto land. Additionally, India lacks a runway that is longer than 5 km in length to accommodate such a landing.

After the successful deployment of the swadeshi Global Positioning System through NAVIC or Navigation with Indian Constellation, ISRO is again reaching for the stars.

Shyam Mohan, the project director from VSSC for this landmark experiment, says his team has spent sleepless nights in perfecting this new rocket but adds that space technologies are inherently risky. The 600 scientists and engineers who have toiled hard in making the RLV-TD a reality will be watching with baited breath if their baby succeeds.

The RLV may be named the 'Kalamyaan' after India's legendary former President APJ Abdul Kalam, an aeronautics engineer par excellence who made top class rockets and dreamt big of India being propelled to become a developed country.

For ISRO, no dream is too big as it carefully forges ahead to have a fully 'swadeshi space shuttle'.


First published: 16 May 2016, 12:26 IST