New Delhi: A flight lasting just over 13 minutes on Monday morning put India on course to developing its own space shuttle, a capability that only a handful of nations possess.

“Mission has been accomplished and all the parameters and trajectories were fulfilled. The lift-off was sharp at 7am and then the vehicle landed in the Bay of Bengal," a spokesperson for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) said.

The successful conclusion of what Isro calls its Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) was hailed by President Pranab Mukherjee.

“Hearty congratulations to our space scientists at Isro on successful launch of India’s first ever indigenous space shuttle RLV-TD," Mukherjee tweeted.

A full-fledged shuttle that will carry payloads into space and land back on earth is still a good 10-15 years away, but scientists said the successful demonstrator meant they can now plan for the next stage—a landing on earth.

For Monday’s test, Isro scientists had developed a scaled model that was one-fifth the size of the planned shuttle. This scaled model, capable of climbing up to an altitude of 70km, made a smooth landing on the Bay of Bengal, after taking off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota.

“This was the hypersonic flight experiment (HEX). The next test will be focused on landing the vehicle," the Isro spokesperson said.

Possessing a shuttle will mean India will be able to launch satellites in space and then land the spacecraft back on earth, thus dramatically reducing the cost of space missions.

Future tests will assess various technologies, including hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, powered cruise flight and hypersonic flight using air-breathing propulsion.

On Monday, RLV-TD lifted off from the first launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, at 7am with the help of an HS9 solid rocket booster. After 91.1 seconds, the planned HS9 burn-out occurred, following which both the booster and the RLV-TD mounted on it coasted to a height of 56km.

RLV-TD then separated from the booster and climbed further to a height of about 65km.

The launch vehicle began its descent followed by atmospheric re-entry at five times the speed of sound and then moved smoothly down to the landing spot in the Bay of Bengal, 450km away from Sriharikota.

The flight duration from launch to landing lasted about 770 seconds (13.23 minutes). “In this flight, critical technologies such as autonomous navigation, guidance and control, reusable thermal protection system and re-entry mission management have been successfully validated," Isro said in a press release.

“This is the first step in a larger project of 10-15 years. After this success, we need to slightly pick up pace on the project," said Ajey Lele, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Lele said the biggest challenge now will be to land the shuttle on a runway, just like a plane. “In order to do that, ground infrastructure has to be built, including a runway, and the shuttle will need to have the capability to descend from hypersonic speed and land comfortably," added Lele.

“We are not even looking at landing," said K. Sivan, director of Isro’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. “This is more of an experiment to see whether we are able to achieve certain conditions on flight. We need a vehicle that can come from a speed of Mach 25 to Mach Zero, has material that can survive very high temperatures and also test our own mission management software."

According to the space agency’s last annual report, it has completed studies related to the rocket by carrying out various simulations. It has also validated the on-board software and conducted a successful test of the solid booster motor (HS9) with a secondary injection thrust vector control system.

The scaled model used in Monday’s technology demonstration is nowhere near the two-stage-to-orbit reusable vehicle that Isro is aiming to develop which is expected to bring the cost of satellite launches to one-tenth of what they are today.

“Many such experiments will be carried out in the future, such as for the parachute system which will be put together eventually. We are looking at frugal engineering, developing advanced systems efficiently," said Sivan.

“The final reusable launch vehicle will not be ready for another decade," he added.

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