India to build re-usable launch vehicle after nailing third landing of mini-spaceplane

Next: more work on crewed mission, including space yoga for astronauts

India's Space Research Organization has signalled its intention to build a reusable launch vehicle after a third test of an unpowered experimental precursor again nailed its landing.

The precursor is called the RLV-LEX – the Reusable Launch Vehicle Landing EXperiment – and resembles NASA's retired space shuttle, Russia's Buran reusable vehicle, and the US Air Force's X-37B autonomous spaceplane. The vehicle first flew in April 2023, then again in March 2024.

For its third flight, the craft was again dropped from a helicopter. This time, however, winds were stronger than on previous flights. The lander also made a 500-meter course adjustment as it came in to land – a big increase on the 150-meter shift for the vehicle's second flight – and then "performed a precise horizontal landing at the runway centerline," according to an IRSO announcement.

"Due to this vehicle's low lift-to-drag ratio aerodynamic configuration, the landing velocity exceeded 320km/h, compared to 260km/h for a commercial aircraft and 280km/h for a typical fighter aircraft," the announcement states. A parachute, then landing gear brakes, brought it to a halt. Autonomous systems controlled the rudder and nose wheel steering system to keep the craft rolling straight and true.

The mission employed the same winged body and flight systems used for the second test flight – another important achievement as it demonstrates India's space program can create a reusable vehicle.

ISRO's announcement declares that the successful landing means it has acquired the expertise needed for a future orbital mission – meaning the agency now "embarks into RLV-ORV, the orbital reusable vehicle."

No timetable for that vehicle's development or launch was discussed.

India's next mission of note is called Vyommitra and will see the nation launch a humanoid robot to test its Gaganyaan crewed mission.

Vyommitra is expected to fly later this year and plans call for Gaganyaan to launch in 2025, when it will carry three astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

Maybe they'll do some downward facing dog once they ascend: an Indian university last week staged a conference on the topic of yoga in space. ISRO's staff – including those assigned to the Gaganyaan – also did yoga last week to mark the International Day of Yoga.

The day was also marked by the reveal of an AI-powered yoga mat called “YogiFi” that India's Department of Science and Technology described as "equipped with a built-in innovative sensor layer, tracks postures of yoga performers and offers suggestions to help correct their posture in real time." ®

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