NEW DELHI India has successfully tested a mini space shuttle, taking the country a step closer to its goal of developing a reusable satellite launch vehicle to slash the cost of space exploration.
The Indian Space Research Organization launched the unmanned Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator, or RLV-TD, on May 23 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
ISRO described the launch as a successful test of India's "first winged-body aerospace vehicle operating in hypersonic flight regime."
An experimental scale model, the RLV-TD is just 6.5 meters long and weighs 1.75 tons. It was developed over a five-year period in a project costing about 950 million rupees ($14 million).
Analysts say the RLV-TD is a significant step toward developing within a decade a vehicle capable of taking satellites into orbit and returning to earth for further launches. At present, India uses one-time launch vehicles that cost between 1.2 billion rupees and 1.7 billion rupees each. A reusable option could reduce costs by as much as 90%.
After the test, ISRO reported that the RLV-TD glided down to a specified landing spot in the Bay of Bengal, some 450km from Sriharikota, with a flight duration of about 770 seconds.
"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 statement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded ISRO scientists for their efforts.
"Launch of India's first indigenous space shuttle RLV-TD is the result of the industrious efforts of our scientists. Congrats to them," he tweeted. "The dynamism & dedication with which our scientists & ISRO have worked over the years is exceptional and very inspiring."
India is not the only country testing reusable shuttle options. NASA in the U.S. grounded its old space shuttles in 2011. SpaceX, founded by American billionaire Elon Musk, has successfully tested its Falcon 9 rocket, while Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, recently completed a third flight using the same New Shepard rocket hardware.
When it comes to space exploration, India has always been a budget carrier. In September 2014, its Mars mission entered the orbit of the red planet for just $74 million -- far less than it cost to make "Gravity," the $100 million Hollywood sci-fi film. India reached Mars on its first attempt, following in the steps of NASA, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency.
ISRO's priority continues to be satellite launch vehicles rather than manned flights.