Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) – The Road to Cheap Space Travel

UPSC IAS Preparation, Essay for UPSC Civil Services

Why in News?

  • ISRO will soon carry out another major test for its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) in 2019.
  • ISRO conducted first RLV test in 2016 which was successful.
  • The final version will take at least 10-15 years to get ready.
  • This technology can help India to achieve greater heights in the field of space and also seen as an example of ‘Make in India’.

What is RLV?

  • Conventional launch vehicle such as PSLV and GSLV can be launched once and then discarded because it burns out on re-entering the atmosphere.
  • RLV is a system capable of launching payloads into space more than one time.
  • RLV can launch spacecraft, including satellites, into space and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere withstanding extreme pressure and heat conditions and land in the target spot.

Why RLV?

  • The cost of access to space is the major deterrent in space exploration and space utilization mainly because of the launch vehicle and fuel costs.
  • Therefore, RLV is considered to be the solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on-demand space access as it can be reused.

Also read: 5G Technology – Features, Advantages, Disadvantages and Challenges

How does it work?

  • The first stage or the special booster is powered using a solid fuel that carries the payload to about 70 km into the atmosphere and releases it. Then the descent begins.
  • During the descent phase, small thrusters would help the vehicle navigate itself into the landing area. For the safe descent, RLV is steered by its navigation, guidance and control system.
  • RLV is designed with special materials like special alloys, composites and insulation materials so that it can withstand extreme pressure and heat conditions while re-entering the atmosphere.
  • The configuration of RLV is similar to that of an aircraft and combines the functionalities of both launch vehicles and aircraft for successful launch and descent.
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RLV - IAS EXPRESS

What are the advantages of RLV and How India would benefit?

  • Reusability of RLV will eliminate the cost to create a new launch vehicle every time.
  • The technology used in RLV can also be used in other spacecraft, be it the manned mission to Moon or Mars. Thus it will help economize time and cost.
  • Due to cost-effectiveness and reduced operation cost, India will attract more foreign business to launch their satellites.
  • As it can be reused again, it decreases the growing space debris (remember normal LVs burns out on re-entering the atmosphere = leaving some debris). Therefore, RLV is seen as preferred clean space technology at the international level, thus boosting Indian’s space sector further.
  • It will boost ISRO’s credentials further, and motivate other space agencies to work together with ISRO.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • ISRO plans to evaluate various technologies via RLV such as hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, powered cruise flight and hypersonic flight using air-breathing propulsion.
  • This project is a completely indigenous effort, thus boosting Make in India and creates employment.

Also read: Coastal Economic Zone (CEZ)

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What are the disadvantages of RLVs?

  • They cost higher than expendable launch vehicles because getting back to Earth safely requires more propellants and more hardware.
  • 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 stratosphere and mesosphere layer.
  • Due to cheaper launch cost, there will be more launches at frequent intervals. This leads to more exhaust and more harm to the atmosphere.
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UPSC IAS Preparation, Essay for UPSC Civil Services

Important RLV projects

  • Currently, there is no completely reusable launch system. There is only partially reusable systems under development.
  • In 2015, SpaceX (American private space company) succeeded in converting its Falcon 9 rocket into a partially reusable vehicle by returning the first stage for reuse.
  • In 2016, ISRO conducted first RLV test named RLV-TD (Technology Demonstrator) which was successful. ISRO will soon carry out another major test for its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) in 2019.
  • DRDO has been developing Avatar-RLV (Aerobic Vehicle for Transatmospheric Hypersonic Aerospace TrAnspoRation).
    • It is a study concept for unmanned single-stage re-usable seaplane capable of horizontal takeoff and landing.
    • It is meant for low-cost military and commercial satellite launches.
    • It is a separate project and has no connection with RLV-TD.

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