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India Successfully Flight Tested its First Space Shuttle
May 24, 2016

ISRO successfully flight tested India’s first winged body aerospace vehicle the indigenously made Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) operating in hypersonic flight regime on May 23.

  • In this experimental mission, the HS9 solid rocket booster carrying RLV-TD lifted off from the First Launch Pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota at 7 a.m.

  • After a successful flight of 91.1 second, HS9 burn out occurred, following which both HS9 and RLV-TD mounted on its top coasted to a height of about 56 km.

  • At that height, RLV-TD separated from HS9 booster and further ascended to a height of about 65 km. From that peak altitude of 65 km, RLV-TD began its descent followed by atmospheric re-entry at around Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound).

Salient Features

  • This was the first time ISRO launched a spacecraft, which actually has delta wings and after glided back onto a virtual runway in the Bay of Bengal.

  • The RLV-TD was not recovered from sea during this experiment as the vehicle was not designed to float.

  • The purpose of the experiment was 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 TD experimented RLV was a scale model which is almost 6 times smaller than the final version.

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

  • The special booster or the first stage was powered using a solid fuel and hoisted the RLV-TD experiment to about 70 km into the atmosphere from where the descent began.

  • During the descent phase, which was essentially a glider like event, small thrusters helped the vehicle navigated on to the exact spot where it is supposed to land.

  • The vehicle was successfully tracked during its flight from ground stations at Sriharikota and a shipborne terminal. Ships, satellites and radars monitored its descent.

  • The current experimental version had no under-carriage so it cannot be brought back onto land and India lacks a runway that is longer than 5 km in length to accommodate such a landing.

  • One key technology the scientists had to develop was to make materials that can withstand the extremely 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 was made up of a special 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.

  • The vehicle’s Navigation, Guidance and Control system accurately steered the vehicle during this phase for safe descent. After successfully surviving a high temperatures of re-entry with the help of its Thermal Protection System (TPS), RLV-TD successfully glided down to the defined landing spot over Bay of Bengal, at a distance of about 450 km from Sriharikota, thereby fulfilling its mission objectives.

  • Total flight duration from launch to landing of this mission of the delta winged RLV-TD, lasted for about 13 minutes.

  • In this flight, critical technologies such as autonomous navigation, guidance & control, reusable thermal protection system and re-entry mission management have been successfully validated.

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 and since then it lost its capacity to send astronauts in space on American made rockets.

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

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

The big powers abandoned the idea of a winged reusable launch vehicle but India's frugal engineers believe the solution to reducing 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 10 times if reusable technology succeeds, bringing it down to $2,000 per kg.


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