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India's future space ambitions

As China's star has risen, there's been speculation about whether its expanding space program will trigger a space race with the United States. After all, Shenzhou spacecraft have twice carried taikonauts to orbit and back, and they might in principle support the manned moon mission that the Chinese claim they'll carry out by 2026 and even, maybe, by 2017, one year before NASA now foresees a return to the lunar surface. Still, the next-generation CZ-5 Long March launchers necessary for a manned moon mission by China remain unfunded, and, in general, its space program has so far only repeated decades old American and Russian achievements.

Meanwhile, attracting far less attention and operating on a far smaller budget, the other rising Asian giant, India, has also been ramping up its space program and it is developing some novel, promising approaches. This spring, India's then president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam a colorful scientist and technologist who loomed large from the success of his country's early satellite launch missions, and then led its guided-missile program.

Kalam told the international audience of space experts in Boston that, besides expanding its extensive satellite program, India now plans lunar missions and a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that takes an innovative approach using a scramjet hyperplane. Kalam said that India understands that global civilization will deplete earthly fossil fuels in the 21st century. Hence, he said, a space industrial revolution will be necessary to exploit the high frontier's resources. Kalam predicted that India will construct giant solar collectors in orbit and on the moon, and will mine helium-3, an incredibly rare fuel on Earth, but one whose unique atomic structure makes power generation from nuclear fusion potentially feasible from the lunar surface. India's scramjet RLV, Kalam asserted, will provide the "low-cost, fully reusable space transportation" that has previously "denied mankind the benefit of space solar-power stations in geostationary and other orbits."

Talking of grand projects, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) performed its first commercial launch in April, 2007, lofting an Italian gamma-ray observatory into orbit on its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Next, in early 2009, the Chandraayan-1, India's first lunar orbiter, will carry two NASA projects to search the moon's surface for sites suitable for the proposed U.S. Moon Base. And at next year's end, the first flight of the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HTDV), a demo for the scramjet RLV, is scheduled.

While this current spate of activity brings the country greater prominence, India's space program is not a new development. In 1975, ISRO launched its first satellite, Aryabhata, on a Soviet rocket, and in 1980, India's first home-built launcher, the SLV-3, successfully put a satellite into orbit. ISRO has continued with a series of larger satellites and rockets in the succeeding years. Rather than national prestige, the Indian focus has until recently been on entirely pragmatic applications that gave the most bang for its limited rupees: communications satellites to provide services to far-flung regions of a vast country with little existing communications infrastructure.

The name of the Indian RLV is planned to be Avatar. Lowering launch costs via an RLV has, of course, been theunattainable holy grail for both the United States and Russian space programs. Avatar would weigh only 25 metric tons, with 60 percent of that the liquid hydrogen needed to fuel the turbo-scramjet engines that would power its initial aircraft-style takeoff from an airstrip and its ascent to a cruising altitude. Thereafter, Avatar's scramjet propulsion system would cut in to accelerate it from March 4 to March 8, while an onboard system would collect air from which liquid oxygen would be separated. That liquid oxygen would then be used in Avatar's final flight phase, as its rocket engine burned the collected liquid oxygen and the remaining hydrogen to enter a 100-kilometer-high orbit. ISRO claims that Avatar's design would enable it to achieve at least a hundred reentries into the atmosphere. Therefore, Avatar would have an average launch cost of about $67 per kilogram.

Current launch prices range from about $4,300 per kilogram via a Russian Proton launch to about $40,000 per kilogram via a Pegasus launch. Conceivably, Avatar could give India a radical advantage in the global launch market. Gregory Benford, an astrophysicist at the University of California, is enthusiastic: "The Avatar RLV project will enable the Indian program to leap ahead of the Chinese nostalgia trip. Once low cost to orbit comes alive, it will drive cheaper methods of doing all our unmanned activities in space."

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