In a first, India's space agency uses helicopter to launch autonomous lander

"The dream of an Indian Reusable Launch Vehicle is one step closer to reality."
Chris Young
The RLV landing.
The RLV landing.


The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully completed a landing test as part of its Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration (RLV-TD) program on Sunday, April 2.

Prior to the landing experiment, an Indian Forces (IAF) Chinook helicopter dropped the RLV-TD from a 2.7-mile (4.5 km) altitude. The craft then descended and landed at the Aeronautical Test Range in Challakere, Chitradurga.

India successfully completes a world-first mission

The RLV was released from the Chinook autonomously, and it performed approach and landing maneuvers using its integrated navigation, guidance, and control system. This also allowed it to perform an autonomous landing on the airstrip at 7:40 a.m. local time.

"The RLV took off at 7:10 a.m. by a Chinook helicopter of the IAF as an underslung load and flew at a height of 4.5 km. Once the predetermined pillbox parameters were attained, based on the RLV’s Mission Management and Computer command, the RLV has released mid-air, at a down range of 4.6 km," ISRO explained in a press statement.

India's space agency added that its experiment was a world first, as a winged body had never been carried to an altitude of 4.5 km by helicopter before being released for an autonomous landing.

"With that, ISRO successfully achieved the autonomous landing of a space vehicle," ISRO said. "With LEX, the dream of an Indian Reusable Launch Vehicle arrives one step closer to reality."

India's space agency bets on reusability

The configuration of RLV-TD is similar to that of an aircraft, and it was developed to test several technologies, including hypersonic flight. It features twin vertical tails and double delta wings, making it somewhat resemble a mini Space Shuttle.

“The winged RLV-TD has been configured to act as a flying test bed to evaluate various technologies, namely, hypersonic flight, autonomous landing, and powered cruise flight. In the future, this vehicle will be scaled up to become the first stage of India’s reusable two-stage orbital launch vehicle,” ISRO said in its statement.

In a first, India's space agency uses helicopter to launch autonomous lander
The RLV-TD shortly after touching down.

ISRO also performed a successful flight test of RLV-TD back in 2016. That test allowed it to validate key technologies, including its autonomous navigation system and reusable thermal protection.

Ultimately, India's space agency is testing reusable space technology for the same reason SpaceX and others have focused on reusability in recent years – to drive down the cost of successive launches. ISRO said the technology it is testing with RLV-TD would be useable on other launch vehicles, allowing it to make its entire operations more cost-effective.

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