India has performed the first successful test flight of its low-cost reusable unmanned space shuttle designed to cost-effectively launch satellites into space.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced on Monday morning that it has flown its Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator RLV-TD up to the altitude of 65km, from where the plane glided down to land in the Bay of Bengal.
The unmanned plane was launched towards the edge of space atop India’s HS9 solid rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 7am local time. The rocket carried the hypersonic space plane up to the altitude of 56km where the shuttle separated and continued further ten kilometres up before commencing its descent.
ISRO said the space plane, the first winged spacecraft developed by India, flew through the atmosphere at five times the speed of sound while being all the time accurately steered by its navigation, guidance and control system. The thermal-protection systems performed as expected, shielding the vehicle throughout the fiery re-entry before it plunged into the ocean some 450 km away from the space port.
Throughout the experiment, controllers tracked the space plane from the Sriharikota space port, as well as from a shipborne terminal. The whole flight from launch to landing lasted a little under 13 minutes.
RLV-TD is another of the accomplishments of India, which has been gaining reputation for its ability to cut development costs of ambitious projects compared to its Western competitors. In 2014, India entered the history books by becoming the first country to succeed with its first attempt to put a spacecraft the orbit around Mars. With a price tag of $74m (£46m), the Mangalyaan mission was achieved at a tenth of the cost of Nasa’s MAVEN mission, which reached the Red Planet at the same time.
The RLV-TD, in development since 2006, has cost about one billion rupees (£10m).
The test-flight demonstrator is a crucial step towards the development of a reusable space plane that would be able to cut the cost of satellite launches into orbit around the Earth.