It’s a bit of a splash for India’s space programme. On Monday, the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its first space plane – phase one of its plan to develop reusable vehicles for cheaper space travel.
The plane, called the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), has wings like a fighter jet and two tail fins. A compact 6.5 metres in length, it looks like a miniature version of a NASA space shuttle but carries no crew. It blasted off from the island of Sriharikota, India’s equivalent of Cape Canaveral, and landed in the Bay of Bengal 20 minutes later.
“They’re really moving ahead,” says Jeff Hoffman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a former space shuttle astronaut. “There’s a long way to go before they’re ready for prime time, but this is a valuable first step.”
A booster rocket carried the RLV 56 kilometres above Earth, past the upper limits for aircraft and weather balloons. After the booster detached, the RLV sailed on through the mesosphere before peaking at 65 km.
Although it didn’t technically go into space, it travelled high enough to try out its wings and self-steering system.
Back to Earth
The RLV then tilted its nose up and began a controlled fall, re-entering the lower atmosphere at about five times the speed of sound. The ground crew tracked the descent, observing that the heat-resistant plating successfully protected the plane.
The RLV went through the motions of a safe landing and splashed down in the ocean, but lacked the gear to land intact and was not recovered. The agency plans to carry out safe terrestrial landings and retrieve the vehicles in later test flights.
No space agency has had a reusable crewed vehicle since NASA ended the space shuttle programme in 2011 – though such vehicles remain an attractive goal for both governments and private companies.
The US Air Force has successfully launched and recovered its uncrewed mini-shuttle, the X-37B, and the Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation is planning a crewless launch of its reusable vehicle, the Dream Chaser, in November 2016.