Successful flight test for India's experimental reusable spaceplane

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RLV-TD took off on an H9 solid rocket booster(Credit: ISRO)

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India today entered the ranks of spacefaring nations with reusable spacecraft as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) conducted the first flight of its locally-built spaceplane demonstrator. The unmanned, scale hypersonic Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) spaceplane took off at 7:00 am IST on a suborbital flight of 770 seconds from First Launch Pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota and was safely recovered after a successful reentry and splashdown.

Similar in design to the US Air Force's X-37B, the RLV-TD is a two-stage scaled prototype of India's Avatar spacecraft that is designed to drastically reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit from US$5,000 per kilogram (2.2 lb) to US$500. RLV-TD is a winged technology demonstrator for testing flight and propulsion systems that will allow the completed Avatar to return to Earth for a controlled landing like a conventional aircraft.

For today's flight, the unmanned demonstrator lifted off atop a conventional HS9 solid rocket booster, which fired for 91.1 seconds. After separation, the winged craft coasted to an altitude of 65 km (40 mi) before making a controlled reentry during which it reached a peak velocity of Mach 5 (3,800 mph, 6,125 km/h).

When the atmosphere was thick enough, the flight surfaces took over and the RLV-TD glided under on-board computer control to the recovery area for a splashdown in the Bay of Bengal about 450 km (280 mi) from Sriharikota. The sea recovery was necessary because the spaceplane requires a runway 5 km (3.1 mi) long, which India does not currently possess.

The flight was the first in a series that will test the RLV-TD's ability to carry out hypersonic flight, landings, return flight, and scramjet propulsion before a full-sized vehicle is built. During today's mission, the team concentrated on testing the spacecraft's autonomous navigation, guidance and control systems, the reusable thermal protection system, and on re-entry mission management.

The RLV-TD was originally scheduled to fly in 2015, but was delayed due to technical issues.

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