Made in India in space

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Made in India in space

RLV launch is tribute to indigenisation in Isro

The Indian Space Research Organisation's successful technology demonstration of its reusable launch vehicle on Monday is yet another feather in its already well-decorated cap. In recent months, Isro has made the country proud with its spectacular mission to Mars and its own geo-positioning satellite system, to name just two achievements. And now it is on its way to securing even greater heights with the reusable launch vehicle.

Such a vehicle is capable of taking satellites to space and then returning to earth so that it can be used again for another launch. This programme, like many other recent Isro missions, is an indigenous effort that boasts of the organisation's now trademarked frugal engineering technology. The reusable launch vehicle cost just about Rs95 crore and has been developed in the last five years. Once finalised, it will be a major money-saver as it will reduce by 10 times the cost of launching rockets for carrying satellites. Currently, space agencies worldwide spend an estimated $20,000 on medium-to-heavy weight rockets which are used to launch satellites.

 According to experts, about 70 per cent of the cost of a launch vehicle lies in its structure and avionics — thereby making reusable launch vehicles the ideal opinion for cost cutting. India is keen to achieve low cost yet reliable space access options, and the reusable launch vehicle could be a game-changer in this regard. Indeed, mastery of the reusable launch vehicle will be a big development, as the country is fast emerging as a major space power and, importantly, is eyeing a significant chunk of the burgeoning commercial space launch industry. A small example of this strategy is the satellite that India is planning for its partners at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Needless to say, the Saarc satellite will bring major geo-political advantages for India in its immediate neighbourhood.

However, it is important to understand that India is still about a decade or two away from having a full-fledged reusable launch vehicle, as the Director of Isro's Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, K Sivan, pointed out. The vehicle used on Monday was only a technology demonstrator, and one-fifth the size of the actual reusable model. It was also not designed to land on a runway, which advanced models in the future should be able to do.

The eventual goal is to build a two-stage-to-orbit reusable vehicle. According to Sivan, the focus for now is on getting the basics right — ensuring certain flight conditions and speed specifications, having a material that withstand high temperatures etc. Additionally, Isro is also looking at improving the efficiency of its existing Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle which currently has a 2.2 tonne payload capacity. Isro is hoping to increase that to 3.5 tonnes.

After all, the state-run space organisation has no scope for complacency. For example, it is already in competition with American billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his privately-owned Space Exploration Technologies, which has invested heavily in developing a cheaper, reusable rocket. In fact, in April, SpaceX, as Musk's company is commonly known, created history by sending off to the International Space Station the Falcon 9 rocket whose reusable main-stage booster later landed in the ocean.

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