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.
This is a pretty big deal launch: it’s the return to flight for Dragon, and it’s the first successful landing on a boat by a rocket! Skip to 9 minutes if it’s just the first stage landing you want to see.
Soyuz TMA-14M blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome yesterday:
The crew are Soyuz commander Alexander Samokutyaev, Soyuz engineer Elena Serova, and NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. Elena Serova is the first Russian woman to fly into space since 1997. Serova is only the fourth female cosmonaut, following in the footsteps of Valentina Tereshkova, Svetlana Savitskaya, and Yelena Kondakova.
The flight was not without glitches; although the launch was flawless and the fast-track approach successful, the Soyuz was only able to deploy one of its solar arrays. Fortunately, one is all it really needs; the second one is a backup.
FIrst off, yesterday saw the launch and subsequent docking of Progress M-23M, marking the fifty-fifth Progress flight to the ISS:
And then today, an Atlas V launched carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. It’s a configuration that has only launch once before: Atlas 541, which previously launched the Curiosity rover to Mars. The number indicates a 5 meter fairing, 4 strap-on booster, and a single-engine Centaur. The sheer power suggests this vehicle is headed directly into geostationary orbit.
ULA launch highlights video:
Now, obviously we don’t really know what’s on that rocket, where it’s going, or what it will be doing, but experienced observers of classified payloads have a short list of possibilities. NASASpaceFlight.com has an interesting discussion on the subject of NROL-67’s capabilities and mission.
It’s been a busy week for launches, despite the loss of the Eastern Range. Today, India successfully launched IRNSS-1B, the second element of their domestic satellite navigation constellation, aboard a PSLV rocket.
And the Eastern Range is working towards coming back online. Although the USAF still won’t give a date for when the radar will be available again, the successful launch of DMSP F-19 allows them to tentatively schedule their next Atlas V launch of NROL-67 from Cape Canaveral to April 10. Assuming that flies on time, the CRS-3 mission with Dragon to the ISS is penciled in for April 14. Dragon will be beaten to the station by a Progress capsule, though, scheduled to blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on the 9th.
DMSP F19 successfully lifted off from Vandenberg AFB in California today! This spacecraft has been sitting in storage for fifteen years, thanks to its predecessors lasting much longer than anticipated, but now it will go into service.
And a few hours later, Sentinel 1A launched aboard a Soyuz-Fregat from Guiana Space Center, French Guiana, South America. The “seeing” is unusually good in this video; I think it’s the best view of Soyuz booster separation that I’ve seen (starting around 2:30 in this video).
It’s always a good time to watch a rocket, right? 😉 This one blasted off from Baikonur last weekend with two geosynchronous commsats on board. These two will offer high definition TV programming to Siberian customers, who previously did not have access to such signals.
SpaceflightNow has a nice article about the payloads, with a picture of them during encapsulation in the assembly hall.