In the age of use and throw, Indian space scientists are planning something different — a reusable launch vehicle (RLV). It will speed into space like a rocket but will return to a runway like an aircraft. It will be the marriage of rocket and aircraft technologies. In mundane terms, it will dramatically cut the cost of taking a payload to a tenth of what it is now.
During the initial sequence of test flights — known as technology demonstration (TD) — an SLV-3 will haul an airplane-shaped RLV into the skies. At a particular altitude, the unmanned RLV will break free, dash into space at several times the speed of sound, place a satellite in orbit and return to the earth. The first test flight will be in 2008-09.
"We are working on the reusable launch vehicle,” said M. Annamalai, director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. “The SLV will be the ideal launcher as it will facilitate a quick launch mission.”
Now, after a launch, parts of the rocket fall into the sea and are lost. However, in the case of an RLV, since it returns and is fully reusable, it will bring down the cost — from $12,000-15,000 for a kilo of payload to $1,200-1,500.
A version of this recover-and-reuse plan will be tested for the first time later this year. In ISRO, they call it SRE or the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment.
As part of this, a 600-kg satellite will be launched into an orbit 400 km from the earth. It will orbit the earth for about 30 days and return. On its flight down, parachutes will open and direct its landing over the Bay of Bengal from where it will be recovered.
India is not the only one planning an RLV. NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the space agencies of China, Japan and Russia are chasing the RLV dream to trim the cost of their space odysseys.