On April 2, 2023, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) achieved a major milestone in its efforts to develop reusable launch vehicles with the successful demonstration of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Autonomous Landing Mission (RLV LEX) at the Aeronautical Test Range (ATR) in Chitradurga, Karnataka.
The RLV LEX test was the second of five planned tests aimed at developing space planes or shuttles that can travel to low earth orbits, deliver payloads, and return to earth for reuse. Using the Integrated Navigation, Guidance, and control system, the RLV performed approach and landing maneuvers before autonomously landing on the ATR airstrip at 7:40 AM IST. This achievement marks a significant step forward in ISRO’s efforts to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle to enable low-cost access to space.
The RLV-TD (HEX) mission conducted in 2016 was the first successful experiment in this series, and the current RLV LEX test was carried out after nearly seven years of continued research and development. According to ISRO, the ongoing experiments with the winged RLV-TD are aimed at developing essential technologies like hypersonic flight (HEX), autonomous landing (LEX), return flight experiment (REX), powered cruise flight, and Scramjet Propulsion Experiment (SPEX) required for a fully reusable launch vehicle.
Reusable space vehicles have been in existence for some time, with NASA’s space shuttles have carried out dozens of human space flight missions. However, the use case for reusable space launch vehicles has recently gained renewed interest, with private space launch service provider SpaceX demonstrating partially reusable launch systems with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets since 2017. Additionally, SpaceX is also working on developing a fully reusable launch vehicle system called Starship.
Several private launch service providers and government space agencies worldwide are working towards developing reusable launch systems, with ISRO being one of them. With this successful RLV LEX test, ISRO has demonstrated its capabilities in developing reusable launch vehicle technology and is on track toward its goal of providing low-cost access to space.