The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is pretty serious about building a credible space program. After already positioning themselves favorably in the competitive international launch business, they’ve already accomplished the remarkable feat of placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet — one of only a handful of nations to do so. Now they’re working towards reusable spaceflight, and also manned spaceflight by setting out on one of the holy grails of human spaceflight: the reusable orbital spaceplane that takes off and lands on a runway. No one has yet come particularly close; the Space Shuttle is by far the most successful spaceplane, but it launched as a two-stage rocket and was only partially reusable. Venturestar sought to become a single-stage-to-orbit fully reusable rocketplane, but was cancelled. X-37 is a fully reusable spaceplane, but cannot launch itself and requires an expendable booster to carry it to orbit. (Or the Space Shuttle. It was originally envisioned as fitting into a Shuttle’s payload bay.)
As the first major step on this rather long path, ISRO has built and launched a scale model spaceplane very similar in appearance to the X-37. Called the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator, it launched early today from Sriharikota’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre atop a solid-propellant ATV sounding rocket, an unusually heavy sounding rocket built by ISRO largely for projects such as this one. It accelerated the automonous spaceplane to at least Mach 5, reaching a maximum altitude of 65 km and a downrange distance of 450 km before making what was apparently a surprisingly well controlled bellyflop into the Bay of Bengal. (The test article was not intended to be recoverable, as it survival was considered dubious. But it will have recoverable successors.) It carried out tests of the heatshield technology, guidance, flight control, and navigation systems. It did not reach the Karman Line and thus is not a true spaceflight, but it was not intended to be; this is a subscale test to validate the basic design before proceeding to higher energies.
ESA has released a highlights reel of the docking sequence. It’s neat to see the thruster firings as the computer brings the spacecraft in.
This is ESA’s final ATV, their cargo vehicle to the ISS and one of only two spacecraft types capable of delivering propellant for Zvezda’s main engines. (The other, of course, is the Russian Progress.) As ATV is designed to duplicate this function, it also docks the same way Progress does — it docks to the aft port of Zvezda, with a Soyuz-style cone-and-drogue docking system, using the Kurs rendezvous system.
First we’ve got the Delta IV Medium+ (4,2) from Cape Canaveral Air Station carrying two satellites intended to supplement the USAF’s Space Fence and track objects in orbit from above, improving awareness of much smaller debris as well as a small experimental satellite.
And here’s the launch of ATV 5 “Georges Lemaitre” aboard an Ariane V from Kourou, French Guiana. This is the final ATV mission.
ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” has arrived at the ISS. The last Progress to dock at Zvezda’s aft port did not damage any of the sensors after all, and ATV-4’s docking was completely nominal. The vehicle carries propellants for Zvezda’s propulsion module, drinking water, food, tons of equipment, and breathable air inside Einstein’s pressurized volume.
Meanwhile, Shenzhou 10 has arrived at the Tiangong 1 space station. The crew expect to spend 12 days there conducting experiments and practicing procedures that would be needed for more ambitious missions.
Shenzhou 10’s crew includes China’s second female astronaut, and the ISS presently has a female astronaut on it too, Minnesota Karen Nygren. More on that in my next post. 😉
Two big events in human spaceflight today!
First, Shenzhou 10 blasted off from Jiuquan Space Center in China, carrying commander and experienced flyer Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang, and Wang Yaping, China’s second female astronaut. They will be docking with Tiangong-1 in a few days, becoming the third and final crew of the station.
Then, a few hours later, Progress M-19M made its scheduled departure from the ISS, loaded with trash. This clears the aft Zvezda port for the arrival of “Albert Einstein”. The undocking footage will be scrutinized first, though; Progress M-19M had a faulty antenna that failed to deploy properly and they want to be sure it didn’t damage any of the sensors around the docking ring before they let ATV-4 come in depending on those sensors.