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Astronauts to fly reused SpaceX rocket capsule for 1st time – Science and Technology Current Affairs

Astronauts to fly reused SpaceX rocket capsule for 1st time – Science and Technology Current Affairs

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  • GS 3 || Science and Technology || Space || Satellites & Launch Vehicles

Why in the news?

SpaceX returned four astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS). The astronauts, three American and one Japanese, flew back in the same capsule — named Resilience — in which they launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in November.

What are ‘Reusable’ Rockets?

  • A reusable launch system (Reusable launch vehicle, RLV) is a system capable of launching a payload into space more than once.
  • In recent time, it has emerged as the unanimous solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on—demand space access.
  • The RLV technology is at least four decades old, and several nations, and even private space firms, have experimented with it. However, only NASA has put it to any practical use until now, in its much-acclaimed space shuttle programme that ran from 1981 to 2011.
  • The development of reusable rockets has made the rocket launching process significantly cheaper than earlier. It will further push the space sector to reach new heights.

India’s RLV-TV: How it functions?

  • India’s RLV includes a Space Shuttle-like craft that could feature an air-breathing ramjet engine.
  • This craft will take a payload to space and then glide back to Earth, landing like a normal aircraft, much like the Space Shuttle.
  • The rocket that will take this shuttle to orbit will return to Earth much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. It will return under its own power and make a landing on a floating platform out at sea.

India’s journey of RLV:

  • The making of the Indian space shuttle or RLV-TD has taken five years and the government has invested Rs. 95 crore in the project.
  • The solution to reducing the cost of launching satellites into orbit is to recycle the rocket or make it reusable.
  • Scientists at ISRO believe that they could reduce the cost by as much as 10 times if reusable technology succeeds, bringing it down to $2,000 per kg from the present $20,000 per kg.
  • The RLV-TD successfully completed its first atmospheric test flight on 23 May 2016.
  • It was designed to evaluate various technologies, and development of the final version is expected to take 10 to 15 years.
  • These technologies will be developed in phases through a series of experimental flights.Four aspects of the vehicle are to be tested:
    • Hypersonic flight, tested in the hypersonic flight experiment (HEX)
    • Autonomous landing, to be tested in the landing experiment (LEX)
    • Powered cruise flight
    • Hypersonic flight with air-breathing propulsion, to be tested in the scramjet propulsion experiment (SPEX)
  • The RLV-TD is being designed and built at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. Its navigational equipment was supplied by the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit in Thiruvananthapuram and ISRO’s Satellite Applications Centre in Ahmedabad.
  • The RLV-TD was developed with an objective to test various aspects such as hypersonic flight, autoland, powered cruise flight, hypersonic flight using the air-breathing engine propulsion and “Hypersonic Experiment”.

Significance of RLV test on Indian Space Program:

  • More options of PSLV and GSLV: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) are expendable launch vehicles but they got burned after launching satellites in space. Reusability of RLV will decrease this cost to create a new launch vehicle for every time.
  • Flexibility in launching satellites: The propeller used in RLV can be customised accordingly, to launch a satellite in lower orbit, only one propeller in single stage to orbit RLV will be used. For higher orbit, 2 stages to orbit RLV will be used.
  • Optimal cost and time management of launching schedule: Technology used in this launch vehicle can be used in other spacecrafts either it is man mission to Moon or Mars, thus it will help to economise time and monetary cost.
  • Cost effectiveness and increasing competitiveness: Due to cost effectiveness, and reduced cost of operation, India will attract more foreign business to launch their satellites.
  • Sustainable debris activities: As it can be reused again, it reduces the growing space debris and thus it can be seen as preferred clean space technology at international level which can further boost Indian’s space commerce industry.
  • Stature at International platforms: With RLV, India will join a select group of nations having their own space flights.
    • USA – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis
    • Russia – Soyuz
    • China – Shenzhou
  • More influence on neighbours: India can use the RLV to launch the satellites of smaller neighbours with cheap cost. Thus India would get a geo-strategic advantage with RLV.

Issues:

  • No quick cost cuts: It is estimated that RLV, once fully developed in about a decade, could bring down launch costs 8-10 times. Currently, it costs Rs 6-8 lakh to send a 1 kg payload into a low earth orbit. The PSLV and GSLV carry payloads of 1,000-2,500 kg per flight. Since no RLVs have been used except in NASA’s space shuttle programme, there is little direct evidence for cost reductions. ISRO has spent about Rs 90 crore on developing the prototype RLV. The likely cost of an operational RLV over the next 10 years is expected to be substantially more than the average cost of a PSLV, which is about Rs 120 crore.
  • Degree of reusability: The cost advantage also depends on the degree of reusability built into the vehicle. There are different stages to the flight of a launch vehicle.
  • Fuel consumption and environmental concerns: Fuel cannot be reused in the rocket as it is released into the atmosphere at an exhaust rate of 300 pounds/second. They pollute the atmosphere more since they emit CO2 at the stratosphere and mesosphere layer.
  • Cost of recurrent demonstration: The cost advantage of a reusable vehicle can become evident only over several launches. That is because the development cost of RLV far exceeds the manufacturing cost of an existing launch vehicle.
  • Private companies are developing reusable launch vehicles: NASA has retired its Shuttle program, and the Soviet Buran program had just one flight. Private companies are stepping into the reusable vehicles space. Airbus has Adeline, Reaction Engines of UK have a pilotless reusable vehicle called Skylon, and SpaceX has been testing reusable rockets. In contrast, there is abysmal private participation of private players in Indian space sector

Way forward:

Currently, there is no completely reusable launch system. There are only partially reusable systems under development. India needs to speed up its experimental projects to make the dream of having reusable flights a reality. The government should relax the regulatory requirements in manner that it encourages private participation. ISRO should focus more on the research and innovation part while the production of machinery and tools can be passed on to the private sector.

Model Mains Question:

  1. What do you understand by ‘Re-usable Launch Vehicle (RLV)’? Discuss India’s preparedness to develop its own indigenous RLV-TD programme.