India on Monday successfully tested its home-grown winged reusable launch vehicle (RLV), demonstrating its space technology prowess, a senior official said.
"We have successfully accomplished the RLV mission as a technology demonstrator. The lift-off was at 7 am from the first launch pad here," Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) director Devi Prasad Karnik told media.
The aircraft-shaped vehicle returned intact and landed on a virtual runway, plunging into the Bay of Bengal, about 500 km away from the east coast, after a 10-minute guided flight in the atmosphere at an altitude of about 70 km above the Earth.
The sleek 1.7-tonne RLV was latched on top of a 15-tonne rocket with a booster from the spaceport here in Andhra Pradesh, about 80 km of Chennai on the east coast.
The space agency's telemetry, tracking and command network (Istrac) centre in Bengaluru recorded the data of the vehicle's hypersonic speed, autonomous landing and powered cruise flight using air-breathing propulsion.
The maiden mission has qualified India to enter the elite club of space-faring nations like the US (NASA), Russia (Russia), France (European Space Agency) and Japan (Jaxa), which developed and used RLVs for their space missions over the years.
The seven-metre RLV prototype was used as a flying test bed in to evaluate technologies the state-run space agency developed to reduce the cost of launching satellites into the Earth's polar and geo-stationary orbits in the next decade.
"The long-term objective of this mission is to reduce the launch cost by 80 percent of the present cost by using a reusable vehicle," Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) director K Sivan told media ahead of the test.
Rockets and support systems for launching satellites and space exploration missions are made at the space agency's VSSC at Thiruvananthapuram in southern Kerala.
Space agencies across the world spend on average $20,000 per kg to build and use medium-to-heavy weight rockets to launch satellites into the Earth's polar and geo-stationary orbits, about 36,000 km above the planet Earth.
"In subsequent test flights, we will attempt to land the reusable vehicle at a specific location on land like an aircraft does on a runway so that we can again use it for launching satellites," Sivan noted.
The space agency is developing the RLV and its support systems from the budget earmarked annually for technology development and research and development activities.
The cost of developing the RLV technology is estimated to be about Rs.100 crore ($14 million).
"Developing the complex technology and using a reusable vehicle will take over a decade as we have to build them with our own resources," Sivan said.
Thrusters were used to navigate the vehicle at a high speed and descend after surviving in the lower atmosphere where temperatures remain very high.
The space agency will make at least two more RLV prototypes with additional features for other tests before the final version, which will be six times bigger than its demonstrators.
US-based billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin have recently conducted similar test launches.
SpaceX tested its Falcon 9 rocket in December while Blue Origin's New Shepard completed a third launch and vertical landing in April.
NASA, however, grounded its space shuttle programme in 2011 after using its reusable vehicles like Discovery, Endeavor, Columbia and Challenger as a space transportation system for over three decades since 1981 to launch various missions, including International Space Station (ISS) and Hubble telescope.