ISRO to follow in Elon Musk's footsteps, build world's first fully-reusable rockets

ISRO plans to recover both stages of the launch vehicle, which no space agency has attempted yet.

SpaceX has got a huge fanbase and lots of praise for a total of 38 successful landings of its Falcon 9 reusable boosters out of 49 attempts.

These landings are, undoubtedly, one of the most satisfying sights for rocketry buffs.

The Indian Space Research Organisation could soon bring twice the joy, upping the ante by building a launch vehicle with not just one reusable component, but two. This would make the entire two-stage rocket suitable for multiple launch missions, according to a Times of India report.

ISRO will conduct early trials of this technology in June or July this year, the report said.

The first demonstration of the rocket's concept was tested on 23 May 2016, when ISRO carried out its 'Hypersonic Flight Experiment' of a two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO), fully-reusable rocket.

An illustration showing the different stages in the RLV technology demonstration, from launch to landing of both stages. Image: ISRO

An illustration showing the different stages in the RLV technology demonstration, from launch to landing of both stages. Image: ISRO

The demo was a success, with the rocket launching at an altitude of 70 kilometers, and manoeuvered back to Earth and into the Indian Ocean, where it disintegrated. This was a successful test of one of the four technologies that ISRO intends to incorporate int0 the final developmental version of the Reusable Launch Vehicle (called the RLV-Technology Demonstrator):

  • hypersonic flight, tested in the hypersonic flight experiment (HEX) in 2016
  • autonomous landing, to be tested in the landing experiment (LEX) in 2019
  • powered cruise flight,
  • hypersonic flight with air-breathing propulsion, to be tested in the scramjet propulsion experiment (SPEX)

To recover the first stage, ISRO will use a similar principle to SpaceX's Falcon 9 boosters, whereby the rocket is programmed to land on a pad in the sea after launch.

For the second stage of the rocket, ISRO plans to test an advanced version of the RLV tested in 2016 in an advanced test in June or July 2019. The rocket will be controlled by ISRO engineers after launch to land on an airstrip, after which it will be used again for a second launch.

An illustration of the RLV-TD concept. Image: ISRO

An illustration of the RLV-TD concept. Image: ISRO

"We are developing a winged body like a space shuttle. This shuttle will be attached to as a second stage in the rocket. It will carry the top portion of the rocket, comprising a satellite or spacecraft, to space," ISRO Chairman Dr K Sivan told ToI.

"Once it injects the satellite in its orbit, the shuttle will glide back to the earth and land on an airstrip like an aircraft."

Sivan added that recovering the second stage is something no other space agency has attempted before – not even SpaceX.

Unlike the 2016 experiment, the second demonstration of the technology this year will use a helicopter to carry the winged rocket to a certain altitude. From that height, the rocket will be dropped and steered by engineers to attempt a landing on an airstrip, much like a regular airplane would.

The airstrip will likely be in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, but no final decisions have been made about it yet, according to the report.

Compared to the massive share that SpaceX holds (roughly 50 percent) of the international launch vehicle market as of 2018 – largely thanks to its reusable launch vehicle technology – ISRO can only claim around 0.6 percent.

With the market expected to grow by $7 billion by 2024, ISRO is guaranteed to get a bigger bite of the juicy RLV apple if it masters the technology soon enough.

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