Tag Archives: suborbital

India’s new spaceplane makes a successful test flight

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.

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Blue Origin successfully returns a rocket from the edge of space

In the long quest for a reusable flyback booster, Blue Origin has just made a big step forward with its New Shepard booster: they are now the first to fly a rocket past the Karman Line and into space, and then fly it back to the launch site for a precision landing on a designated pad.  The New Shepard  system includes a crew capsule that Blue Origins plans to market for suborbital spaceflights.  Although they have beaten SpaceX to this particular milestone, SpaceX is going for a different market, as their flyback Falcon 9 first stage is much larger must return from much farther downrange.  But on the other hand, Falcon 9 uses kerosene, a comparatively easy fuel, while Blue Origin uses liquid hydrogen, a fuel which few have mastered and which comes with significant density penalties.  It’s an impressive achievement, and Blue Origins has rightfully earned a spot in the history books.  They’ll ratchet it up a little more after they finish analyzing the flight data, because they intend to reuse this specific vehicle again.  If all goes well, once they start offering these flights to the public, they expect most of their customers to be millionaires with a bucket list, and universities wanting to run experiments requiring more microgravity than ZeroG’s parabolic flights can offer, but not costing as much as the ISS.

And also, Happy Thanksgiving to all the American readers!  I hope you have all had a chance to stuff yourselves properly today.  😉

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