On 23rd May 2016, India for the first time in the history of its space programme tested a fixed-wing launch platform – the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD). This miniature vehicle was launched on a modified first stage of the long-retired Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), and it rose to an altitude of 65 km into the mesosphere . This momentous first-of-its-kind experiment brings India into a select line-up of nations that are pursuing hypersonic flight and reusable launch platforms simultaneously. The Department of Space (DOS), Government of India, has a limited mandate for research and development (R&D) and the upkeep of its expendable launch systems and earth-oriented communication, navigation, and surveillance satellites.
With its highly reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the yet emerging Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), DOS has given itself some latitude to occasionally undertake non-conventional experimental space projects in the areas of planetary exploration, human space flight, and space-based observatories. These include Chandrayaan-1, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), Astrosat, the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (GSLV-launched), and the recent RLV-TD. Despite the success of these missions, most of them are executed only as “low-cost” “technology demonstrators” as DOS is unable to seamlessly carry out high-end projects due to the paucity of resources, owing to the clumsy affinity of space policymakers for frugality.
The expressions “technology demonstrators”—also known as prototypes—and “low cost” are really two sides of the same coin. With a prototype, a constructor exhibits its ability to engineer next-generation technology, not in its entirety but with few fundamentally enhanced design and performance elements. A prototype’s fate is largely dependent on its inherent qualities, its urgent need, and the resources invested in it. Prototypes are inexpensive when compared to their production variants. Car manufacturers, for instance, spend only up to 4% of their total revenue on R&D of a concept, or prototype vehicle.
Figure 1: Globally-validated Technology Readiness Levels for space technologies
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is governed by DOS, develops its technologies based on a globally-validated R&D maturity sequence known as the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) (see Fig. 1). The sequence includes starting levels of basic research (TRL 1) to ultimately attaining a fully space-proven technology, with its own complete technical manual (TRL 9). ISRO’s technology demonstrators are positioned at TRL 7, where a prototype validates its performance in a real space environment but does not integrate subsystems that have been fully tested to the last bug.
A maximum TRL of 9 demands R&D of highly complex engineering subsystems as well as their incessant analyses, which leads to a longer project lifecycle and necessitates extensive auxiliary infrastructure. TRL 9 thus demands greater monetary and human resources than what the India’s space policymakers are comfortable allocating, given their undue affinity for frugality.
While pursuing the RLV-TD, the Central Government seeks to maximise its technological output by indigenously harvesting high-end capabilities like hypersonic and autonomous space flight, flight stability and control, mission avionics hardware, and next-generation thermal protection materials. With so many potential spin-offs expected, is it then at all rational to fund the RLV frugally and yet expect great returns from it?
RLV: the future scenario in the small satellite market
Both the consistent launch success of PSLV—its ability to carry out multi-orbit missions with varied payloads (1.4 ton to 750 grams) and evolution into an expendable launch system—as well as ISRO’s Antrix Corporation’s competitive pricing strategy, have given PSLV a wide international clientele. However, it must be stated that PSLV is a small satellite launch system (SSLS) (up to 1.5 ton in Geostationary Transfer Orbit) and its success, howsoever impressive, is limited within the SSLS category. PSLV developed in an era when most of its global SSLS contemporaries had retired. Its only actively operational SSLS competitors are Khrunichev’s Rokot and Orbital ATK’s Minotaur, but in terms of their number of launches and assortment of payloads, they lag far behind.
In the recent past, Antrix’s competitive pricing and services have begun to vex its SSLS competitors, especially those from the U.S. space launch industry. When PSLV launched the Lemur cube satellite constellation in 2015 for private U.S. company, Spire Global, it triggered the protectionist nous in the U.S. domestic launch sector: the implication was that India, with its competitive pricing, was distorting the conditions of competition, taking away its potential local customers. This reaction was an indication of how the international SSLS market, with late bloomers in Space like India taking centrestage, is becoming more and more dynamic with every passing day.
Extreme space weather is also increasingly perceived as a threat to large old generation satellites while the 2007 anti-satellite missile tests conducted by Beijing agitated the need in many strategic space circles to escalate the process of satellite miniaturisation. Consequently, next-gen satellites are not only undergoing rapid miniaturisation, but will eventually be built with futuristic materials that resist extreme weather like a solar storm.
Increasing demand for miniaturised satellites is galvanising both private and public space contractors to build diversified reusable launch systems. These include aircraft-launched rockets (Orbital ATK’s Pegasus), aircraft-launched fixed wing space planes (the People’s Liberation Army’s Shenlong), two-stage-to-orbit (Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, the European Space Agency’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, and Boeing’s X-37), and reusable rocket-stage and boosters (Airbus’s Adeline, the cancelled Khrunichev’s Baikal, German Aerospace Center’s Liquid Fly-back Booster, and the United States Air Force’s Reusable Booster System).
PSLV has launched a large number of miniature satellites of domestic and international clients, the Lemur constellation being one of them. Yet, PSLV has launched these only as secondary payloads as DOS realises it would not be an economical platform to launch them as primary payloads. Instead, if pursued appropriately, RLV is expected to become fully operational by the 2030s, by which time, there would be a considerable global shift to miniaturised satellites which would fit the carrying capacity of RLV’s tentative operational variant. Despite its apparent similarity to the Space Shuttle, RLV could become an SSLS, and also has the potential to be a cargo carrier, if India ever attempts building a space station in low earth orbit. Of course, for all this to happen, and given intensified R&D activity in the SSLS sector, the government at the Centre must realise, RLV will not experience the free run as PSLV did and it will have to enter into an aggressively competitive market that is teeming with players.
RLV: potential for an experimental aeronautical complex
India is poised to become the largest aviation market in the world by 2030. Yet, this growth notwithstanding, and barring a few prominent projects, India’s indigenous aeronautical infrastructure is largely limited to R&D in components and subsystems. Apart from a few successful aircraft platforms— for the defence sector—-which have experienced their share of delayed growth, India is largely stuck in either licence manufacturing or purchasing entire aircraft On the other hand, Brazil, which established its government-owned corporation Embraer in 1969, much later than the Indian government-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) (1940) and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL, 1959), is the third largest aircraft manufacturer in the world today, ranking after Airbus and Boeing.
Embraer benefitted greatly from its privatisation initiated by then Brazilian president Itamar Franco in the early 1990s. Privatisation opened the floodgates of funds for path-breaking R&D and thereafter Embraer’s product portfolio diversified and its revenues increased drastically. Embraer now delivers 35% of the total executive jets sold in India while the NAL-HAL Saras—the only Indian small business jet and still at prototype stage—has exhausted funds with and languishes in a hangar. Once again, the main reason for India’s aeronautical sluggishness has been the past government’s apathy towards privatising HAL.
Better late than never, the Narendra Modi government recently announced there be an initial public offering for HAL by December this year. Over six decades of HAL, the Centre failed to cultivate it as a company that would develop experimental aircrafts indigenously, even though the most successful aeronautical companies of the world invest substantially in building experimental aircrafts regularly. These aircrafts do not always make into production, but their subsystems often aid in the generational advancement of production units.
If the Centre takes RLV seriously and not merely stick to its monotonous frugality chant, RLV could prompt the establishment of an experimental aeronautical complex in India. R&D of the orbital RLV could concurrently serve the hi-tech necessities—for avionics, supersonic flight, and composite materials—of India’s huge suborbital aerospace sector. The Modi government must create robust synergies between government-run R&D facilities, aerospace design groups, and the commercial aeronautical sector of multiple domestic players.
RLV: potential for airport infrastructure
The first RLV-TD was designed to disintegrate in the Bay of Bengal, deemed a virtual landing by ISRO. Upcoming RLV-TD tests and subsequent space-plane require a long, approximately 5 km airstrip to make a real landing. ISRO has proposed to utilise a large land parcel near the existing spaceport at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, but having one end-of-mission airstrip is insufficient—spaceplanes require several mission abort airstrips at various locations around the world. Narendra Modi must therefore request friendly nations around the world to make some of their long airstrips available for any emergency aborts of RLV.
In fact, very few airports within India—at Hyderabad, New Delhi, Begaluru, and the Arrakonam Naval Air Station —have airstrips longer than 4km, so the Indian Air Force often exercises landing its medium-lift and heavy-lift aircraft on the country’s shortest airstrips, at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, Port Blair in the Andamans, and Juhu Aerodome in Mumbai. In the coming years, with probable far greater inventory of heavy-lift aircrafts, the imminent return of supersonic commercial jets like the Concorde, and space-planes like the RLV, the central government has to overcome the infrastructural limitations of its existing airports.
Potential for a hi-tech spin-off market
The decision to pursue non-conventional space projects has begun to brood spin-offs that could easily spread across different markets. ISRO’s experience with computational fluid dynamics and rare-earth magnets—a part of rocket engine R&D developed indigenously—has resulted in a non-invasive artificial heart which, if if mass produced, can serve India’s cardiovascular prosthetic devices market.
Another ISRO spin-off is an ultra lightweight ‘aerogel’ that can be used for containing oil spills and in the advanced materials, pharmaceuticals and chemicals industries. ISRO has also collaborated with Tata Motors in the development of a hydrogen cell-powered passenger vehicle. ISRO probably foresees applications of aerogels and fuel cells in its manned space flight program as well, and continuing with such non-conventional projects will only equip the Indian Space Programme to engineer far more spin-offs to meet India’s emerging demands.
The government must therefore push its TRL 7 technology demonstrators to grow into TRL 9 missions, and aptly invest further. It must stop cloaking its stunted investment in R&D with glossier and self-placatory terms for frugality and cost effectiveness. RLV’s comparison to the Space Shuttle is an exaggeration, but then it also signifies the nation’s innocuous aspirations for outer space. RLV has the potential to fire up India’s manufacturing and infrastructure sector while propelling the Indian Space Programme further.
Chaitanya Giri is a ELSI Origins Network Scientist at the Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, and a contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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