What Is A Reusable Launch Vehicle? ISRO Successfully Lands RLV For Third Consecutive Time

What Is A Reusable Launch Vehicle? ISRO Successfully Lands RLV For Third Consecutive Time

On June 23, 2024, ISRO successfully completed the third and last flight of the RLV-LEX series. RLV-LEX-03, also known as "Pushpak," made a successful landing in windier conditions, indicating a major advancement toward an RLV that is fully operational.

Manasi KambleUpdated: Monday, June 24, 2024, 03:07 PM IST
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"Pushpak" ISRO's Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) program | X

Bengaluru: ISRO recently completed the third and final flight of the RLV-LEX series on June 23rd, 2024. This mission, named RLV-LEX-03 or "Pushpak," successfully landed under more challenging wind conditions, signifying a significant step towards a fully operational RLV.

Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) are the game-changers in space travel. Unlike traditional rockets that are discarded after a single use, RLVs are designed to be recovered and launched again. This significantly reduces the cost of space access, paving the way for more frequent missions and a more sustainable space industry. Let's delve into the efforts of two leading space agencies—ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) and SpaceX—in developing RLV technology.

ISRO's RLV Program

Taking Flight with "Pushpak" ISRO's Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) program focuses on building a winged, reusable spaceplane. Named "Pushpak" after the mythical flying chariot, the RLV-TD is a test bed for crucial technologies needed for a fully reusable launch system. Here's a breakdown of ISRO's RLV journey:

Testing the Waters: The program began with the RLV-LEX (Landing Experiment) series in 2023. These suborbital flights involved dropping the RLV from a helicopter at high altitude and then guiding it to a horizontal landing on a runway. This series successfully demonstrated the vehicle's autonomous navigation and landing capabilities under simulated re-entry conditions.

SpaceX's Starship

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has taken a more ambitious approach with its Starship program. Starship is a fully reusable launch system consisting of a Super Heavy booster and a Starship spacecraft. Unlike ISRO's winged design, Starship is a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle, similar to a giant rocket. Here's a glimpse into SpaceX's Starship development:

Rapid Prototyping: SpaceX has adopted a rapid prototyping approach, building and testing multiple Starship prototypes iteratively. This allows them to quickly learn from failures and incorporate improvements in subsequent versions. 

Early Milestones: SpaceX has conducted numerous high-altitude test flights of the Starship prototypes, with some achieving successful landings. Notably, on June 6th, 2024, Starship achieved a first: both the Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft successfully completed a suborbital flight and landed, marking a significant milestone towards full reusability. 

Comparing ISRO's RLV and SpaceX's Starship

ISRO and SpaceX are leading the way in developing reusable launch vehicles. While their approaches differ, both programs aim for reusability and showcase distinct approaches:

Design Philosophy: ISRO's RLV-TD is a winged spaceplane designed for horizontal landings. This design offers advantages in terms of maneuverability and potentially lower fuel consumption during re-entry. SpaceX's Starship, on the other hand, utilizes a VTOL design with a simpler, more rocket-like structure. 
Development Strategy: ISRO has adopted a more cautious and methodical approach, conducting extensive ground testing and suborbital flights before venturing into orbital missions. SpaceX, in contrast, has been more aggressive, rapidly iterating through prototypes and conducting high-altitude test flights.

Current Stage: ISRO has successfully demonstrated the core technologies needed for a reusable launch vehicle with the RLV-LEX series.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has achieved the first full launch and landing of both stages of their Starship system, marking a significant advancement.

Challenges and Opportunities

Developing RLVs is a complex endeavor. Both ISRO and SpaceX face challenges:

Technical Hurdles: Reusable launch vehicles require advanced heat shielding to withstand the intense temperatures encountered during re-entry. Additionally, perfecting the complex landing maneuvers for both winged and VTOL designs is crucial.

Economic Viability: While reusability promises significant cost savings in the long run, the initial development costs for RLVs are high.Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of RLVs are immense.

Reduce Launch Costs: Reusability can drastically lower the cost of space access, enabling more frequent missions and opening up space for new ventures.
Enable Sustainable Space Exploration: By reducing the amount of debris left in orbit after each launch, RLVs contribute to a more sustainable space environment.
Revolutionize Space Travel: Reusable launch vehicles hold the key to making space travel more accessible and affordable, paving the way for a future with regular space missions and potentially even space tourism.

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