While Elon Musk is busy redefining the launch industry, first with SpaceX reusable rocket Falcon 9, and now with the Falcon 9 Block, which will eventually be able to fly up to 10 times without the need for any maintenance after landings, the Indian Space Research Organisation is quietly working on its reusable launcher. And given ISRO’s reputation for coming up with most cost-effective technologies — its Mars mission Mangalyaan had cost less than the Hollywood blockbuster Gravity — this may come as a great news for the satellite launch industry. However, SpaceX has no reason to get rattled since there could be still some time before ISRO’s resuable rocket sees the light of the day. Also, the Falcon rockets are capable of handling much heavier payload.
In his video message for the annual National Conference on Future Directions in Propulsion (ASET 2018) in Kerala, ISRO Chairman K. Sivan chairman said on May 11 that the latest in propulsion, including electric, hybrid, cryogenic and nuclear power propulsion system, was being developed indigenously at the agency’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) in Valiyamala. The attempt was to ensure cost-effective, reusable, recoverable, re-startable and reliable space launches, he added. LPSC is working to control the engine thrust to explore all landing modes, including vertical and soft landing of launch vehicles, so that it can be reused.
LPSC is ISRO’s lead center for development and realization of earth-to-orbit advanced propulsion stages for launch vehicles and also the in-space propulsion systems for spacecraft. It has the responsibility of design, development and system engineering of high-performance space propulsion systems employing Earth storable and cryogenic Propellants for ISRO’s launch vehicles and satellites. Currently, it is also working on 800 Newton liquid main engine propellant for the Chandrayaan-2 Moon mission which slated for launch in later this year.
Progress on resuable technology
Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) is one of the technologically challenging endeavors of ISRO towards developing essential technologies for a reusable launch vehicle to enable low cost access to space. ISRO already successfully tested its first winged-body aerospace vehicle in 2016. In February this year, Sivan had revealed that the agency was working on three technology demonstrators for developing a reusable rocket — the orbital re-entry of the vehicle; the landing of the reusable launch vehicle on the airstrip; and reusable rocket stages. ISRO hopes to do a second test in the next couple of years.
The 2016 RLV test demonstrated what is supposed to be the first stage. It takes off vertically using conventional rocket technology and once it reaches Mach 4, the supersonic combusting ramjet or Scramjet engines kick in to accelerate the vehicle to Mach 8–10. As opposed to a conventional rocket engine, a Scramjet engine collects air from the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, which then passes through the combustion chamber, where it will combust, expand and then be exhausted at supersonic speeds all in less than a millisecond.
However, it may still be some time beforeISRO’s resuable rocket actually becomes a reality. When the first demonstration took place in 2016, ISRO had plans to ready this by 2019. However, Sivan had said in February that only a second demonstration test may take place in about two years.
Further, as per a report submitted by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, the Department of Space (DoS), which houses ISRO, is of the opinion that the space agency is facing a severe of shortage funds which may delay some of its crucial projects. Even though, the report doesn’t specifically mentionISRO’s resuable rocket as one of the projects which is likely to get delayed this year, but the crunch is so severe that the space agency may not be able to “advance actions for procurement of materials and renewal of fabrication contracts with the partner industries”.
ISRO’s small launch vehicle
It may be mentioned here that ISRO is also working on developing a launch vehicle exclusively for small satellites that is slated to be launched in early 2019. The small launcher is expected to cost one-tenth of a normal PSLV rocket which costs anywhere between INR 1,500 million and 5,000 million. It will be capable of carrying a payload of 700 kg.
If this mission is successful, ISRO will defy all conventional wisdom in a launch market that has increasingly shied away from making dedicated launches for small satellites. Further, the fact that this small rocket can be manufactured in about three days, against 40 days required for a regular PSLV rocket, is also expected to escalate the pace of launches.
The small satellite vision is in line with ISRO’s plans to double the number of its launches.