The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully completed the Reusable Launch Vehicle Autonomous Landing Mission (RLV LEX) test on 2 April 2023.
It was the second of five tests of the RLV development program to create space planes/shuttles that can travel to low earth orbits, deliver payloads and return to earth to be used again.
The RLV LEX test involved a Chinook helicopter lifting the RLV LEX to a height of 4.5km and then releasing it. The RLV carried out an autonomous landing, achieving landing parameters that were similar to an orbital re-entry space vehicle's return path.
The RLV development program aims to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle to provide low-cost access to space.
The RLV project is a major initiative by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) aimed at developing a fully reusable launch vehicle that can deliver payloads into low earth orbits and return to earth for reuse.
The development of an RLV is expected to significantly reduce the cost of space launches and make space exploration more affordable and sustainable.
The RLV development program began in 2010, but technical challenges and funding constraints delayed the project. In recent years, the project has gained momentum with the successful completion of two major tests – the first in 2016 and the second on April 2, 2023.
The first test involved launching a winged spacecraft on a rocket powered by a conventional solid booster engine into space. The spacecraft traveled at a speed of Mach 5 when re-entering the earth's orbit and traveled a distance of 450 km before splashdown in the Bay of Bengal.
The test validated critical technologies such as autonomous navigation, guidance and control, reusable thermal protection system, and re-entry mission management.
The second test called the Reusable Launch Vehicle Autonomous Landing Mission (RLV LEX) test, was carried out on April 2, 2023, and involved a Chinook Helicopter of the Indian Air Force lifting the RLV LEX to a height of 4.5 km and releasing it.
After midair release, the RLV carried out an autonomous landing "under the exact conditions of a Space Re-entry vehicle's landing - high speed, unmanned, precise landing from the same return path - as if the vehicle arrived from space," according to ISRO.
The RLV LEX test was the second of five tests planned as part of ISRO's efforts to develop RLVs, or space planes/shuttles, that can travel to low earth orbits to deliver payloads and return to earth for use again.
The test achieved the final approach phase that coincided with the re-entry return flight path, exhibiting an autonomous, high-speed (350 km per hour) landing.
With the RLV-TD project, ISRO is developing essential technologies for a fully reusable launch vehicle to enable low-cost access to space.
The RLV-TD will be used to develop technologies like hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, return flight experiment, powered cruise flight, and Scramjet Propulsion Experiment.
In the future, this vehicle will be scaled up to become the first stage of India's reusable two-stage orbital (TSTO) launch vehicle.
Overall, the RLV project is a significant step forward for India's space exploration program and could pave the way for more affordable and sustainable access to space.
The successful completion of the RLV LEX test is a major milestone in the project and brings India closer to realizing its dream of developing an indigenous, fully reusable launch vehicle.