India has just raised the bar in the race for low-cost space travel. ISRO, the Indian space agency, successfully flew the country’s first winged spacecraft as a technology demonstrator for a future full-sized shuttle.
The unmanned Reusable Launch Vehicle, RLV-TD, is 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighs 1.5 tonnes (1.7 tons). It was launched at 7 a.m. local time (1.30 a.m. UTC) on Monday morning, on top of Indian’s own HS9 solid rocket booster, from Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota.
The booster took it to a height of 56 kilometers (35 miles), and using its autonomous propulsion, the RLV-TD then reached a peak height of 65 kilometers (40 miles).
As planned, it then began its descent, gliding down towards the Bay of Bengal. How the vehicle would cope with atmospheric re-entry, flying in at about 6,000 kilometers (3,800 miles) per hour, was the main focus of the mission.
The RLV-TD was successfully steered by the automatic navigation system and it survived re-entry. It flew for about 10 minutes before landing at sea, 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the launch base.
Lift off from Sriharikota. ISRO
This launch is a new milestone for the Indian space program, after their Mars orbiter mission in 2013. The RLV-TD demonstrated that autonomous navigation, reusable thermal protection, and re-entry management have passed this critical test and can be expanded into a full-scale vehicle.
The development and construction of the RLV-TD cost only $14 million, and ISRO hopes to have a working RLV, six times as big as this model, in the next 10 years. ISRO has a strong focus on low-cost space missions; it’s Mars mission only cost $73 million, significantly less than other previous missions to the Red Planet.
India's successful launch could also mean a significant influx of capital from other countries interested in sending their satellites to space at a lower cost. SpaceX and Blue Origin, two private US companies, are currently testing reusable technologies, while others like the European Space Agency are also developing similar technologies. Going to space might soon become (sort of) affordable.
Chris Jones / IFLScience