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RLV-TD launch
India’s RLV-TD prototype rises from its launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center. (Credit: ISRO)

India’s space agency says it put its winged space shuttle prototype, known as the RLV-TD, through a successful first test flight today.

In a congratulatory tweet, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the launch of “India’s first indigenous space shuttle.”

The Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator was designed to validate the uncrewed craft’s autonomous navigation system, guidance and control, thermal protection system and other elements of the mission profile under hypersonic conditions, the Indian Space Research Organization said in a news release.

ISRO said RLV-TD was launched from India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota atop an HS9 solid rocket booster and rose to a height of about 40 miles (65 kilometers). Then it glided back down under autonomous control and made a simulated landing into a designated patch of the Bay of Bengal, about 280 miles from Sriharikota.

Ground stations and a tracking ship followed the craft through its nearly 13-minute-long flight.

The director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, K. Sivan, told the AFP news agency that the prototype survived its splash landing. “We have located the place where the vehicle is floating. The landing was soft and the vehicle did not break,” Sivan was quoted as saying.

This first prototype, which was reportedly developed at cost of $14 million, was not meant to be reused. However, future prototypes are expected to make airplane-like landings at Sriharikota.

By 2030, India plans to use winged launch vehicles, also known as “swadeshi shuttles,” to carry satellites and eventually astronauts into orbit.

The full-scale shuttles are expected to be about 130 feet long. That’s six times longer than the RLV-TD prototype and comparable in size to NASA’s space shuttle orbiters, which were retired in 2011.

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