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ISRO is silently getting India ready for ‘a giant leap’

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will embark this month on a never before space flight that would make history.

The Indian space agency is set to undertake the maiden launch of its very own indigenous version of a ‘space shuttle’, a made-in-India effort.

Today, a sleek winged body almost the weight and size of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) is being given final touches at Sriharikota, awaiting the final countdown.

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 USD 2,000 per kg.

Very soon and if all goes well possibly before the monsoon sets in, India’s space port at Sriharikota on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh will witness the launch of the indigenously made Reusable Launch Vehicle – Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). This will be the first time ISRO will launch a spacecraft, which has delta wings. After launch, it will be glided back onto a virtual runway in the Bay of Bengal.

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The RLV-TD is unlikely to 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.

Similar in its looks to the American space shuttle, the RLV-TD being experimented is a scale model which is almost 6 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.”

India embarked on making its own version of the space shuttle by thinking about it more than 15 years ago, but work in earnest started only five years ago when a dedicated team of engineers and scientists plunged into making RLV-TD a reality. 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 which is essentially a glider like event small thrusters will help the vehicle to be navigated 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 and India lacks a runway that is longer than 5 km in length to accommodate such a landing.

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.

NASA chief General Charles Bolden recently said

the competition has shifted to a fight among billionaires to reduce the cost of launching satellites into space.

The making of the Indian space shuttle or RLV-TD has taken 5 years and 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 the scientists at VSSC had to develop was to make materials that can withstand 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.

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.

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