Author: Tanmaya Kumar Dash
The historic vertical landing we witnessed on 21 December 2015, was a preview of what is in store in space exploration. Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturing company, SpaceX, aired this feat of engineering for the world to see when the Falcon 9 rocket descended on dry land in Cape Canaveral, Landing zone 1. It was an important milestone in the global attempt to develop reusable launch vehicles, which will reduce the cost of space missions to a large extent.
The idea of utilizing reusable launch vehicles has been troubling scientists and engineers for decades. Billions of dollars have been spent towards developing reusable rockets for space missions. Previously, rockets that propelled payloads into space were completely destroyed in the process and even the space shuttle, which returned to the ground in one piece on its own accord, required semi-disposable rockets to get it to flight. The solid rocket boosters used in these shuttles fell off during the initial take off and months of refurbishment is required before using it. It’s like buying a new car every trip you take a trip. This is why developing reusable rockets have been such a sought out goal.
However, we are yet to reach a stage where we can reuse launch vehicles used in space missions. Elon Musk said that the particular rocket used in the Cape Canaveral launch would never be launched again due to the special value attached to it. SpaceX did try to land another rocket last week, but to no avail as the rocket fell over and exploded.
Blue Origin, however, defied this theory as it launched and landed its suborbital rocket, New Shepard – the same one that the company launched and landed in November. This makes it the first commercial rocket to launch into space the second time. But it would be unfair on our part to compare New Shepard and Falcon 9 despite both going towards the same goal. This is attributed to the fact that New Shepard is designed to take future passengers into suborbital space, where they will experience four minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is made to launch payloads and cargo into orbit and beyond, which requires it to go much faster and to a much higher altitude before returning. However, this does not make Blue Origins achievement any less. Its competitor in this market is not SpaceX but Virgin Galactic, another orbital tourism firm.
India’s space agency, ISRO, is also under the process of developing its own reusable rocket. It is using a Winged Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) to test technologies involved in hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, powered cruise flight and hypersonic flight using air-breathing propulsion. ISRO has scheduled the launch of the fourth satellite in Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) March this year, which will be followed by the tech demo of the reusable launch vehicle. The tech demo would involve a scaled model of a reusable rocket to be flown to space and brought down to earth as said by an ISRO spokesperson. The take-off in this demonstration will be vertical like a rocket, and landing will be like that of an aircraft.
With the rapid pace at which we are approaching the development of reusable launch vehicles, the day is not far when two launches can be carried out in quick succession, reducing not just the cost and preparation of launch site, but also the time associated with it.