Musk’s SpaceX is building spy satellite network for U.S. intelligence agency, sources say

SpaceX is building a network of hundreds of spy satellites under a classified contract with a U.S. intelligence agency, five sources familiar with the program said, demonstrating deepening ties between billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company and national security agencies.

The network is being built by SpaceX’s Starshield business unit under a $1.8 billion contract signed in 2021 with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency that manages spy satellites, the sources said.

The plans show the extent of SpaceX’s involvement in U.S. intelligence and military projects and illustrate a deeper Pentagon investment into vast, low-Earth orbiting satellite systems aimed at supporting ground forces.

Also Read |Starlink: Why the new sovereign of low-earth orbit is bad news

If successful, the sources said the program would significantly advance the ability of the U.S. government and military to quickly spot potential targets almost anywhere on the globe.

The contract signals growing trust by the intelligence establishment of a company whose owner has clashed with the Biden administration and sparked controversy over the use of Starlink satellite connectivity in the Ukraine war, the sources said.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February the existence of a $1.8 billion classified Starshield contract with an unknown intelligence agency without detailing the purposes of the program.

Reuters reporting discloses for the first time that the SpaceX contract is for a powerful new spy system with hundreds of satellites bearing Earth-imaging capabilities that can operate as a swarm in low orbits, and that the spy agency that Mr. Musk’s company is working with is the NRO.

Reuters was unable to determine when the new network of satellites would come online and could not establish what other companies are part of the program with their contracts.

SpaceX, the world’s largest satellite operator, did not respond to several requests for comment about the contract, its role in it and details on satellite launches. The Pentagon referred a request for comment to the NRO and SpaceX.

In a statement the NRO acknowledged its mission to develop a sophisticated satellite system and its partnerships with other government agencies, companies, research institutions and nations, but declined to comment on Reuters’ findings about the extent of SpaceX’s involvement in the effort.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is developing the most capable, diverse, and resilient space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system the world has ever seen,” a spokesperson said.

The satellites can track targets on the ground and share that data with U.S. intelligence and military officials, the sources said. In principle, that would enable the U.S. government to quickly capture continuous imagery of activities on the ground nearly anywhere on the globe, aiding intelligence and military operations, they added.

Roughly a dozen prototypes have been launched since 2020, among other satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, three of the sources said.

A U.S. government database of objects in orbit shows several SpaceX missions having deployed satellites that neither the company nor the government have ever acknowledged. Two sources confirmed those to be prototypes for the Starshield network.

All the sources asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss the U.S. government program.

The Pentagon is already a big SpaceX customer, using its Falcon 9 rockets to launch military payloads into space. Starshield’s first prototype satellite, launched in 2020, was part of a separate, roughly $200 million contract that helped position SpaceX for the subsequent $1.8 billion award, one of the sources said.

The planned Starshield network is separate from Starlink, SpaceX’s growing commercial broadband constellation that has about 5,500 satellites in space to provide near-global internet to consumers, companies and government agencies.

The classified constellation of spy satellites represents one of the U.S. government’s most sought-after capabilities in space because it is designed to offer the most persistent, pervasive and rapid coverage of activities on Earth.

“No one can hide,” one of the sources said of the system’s potential capability, when describing the network’s reach.

Mr. Musk, also the founder and CEO of Tesla and owner of social media company X, has driven innovation in space but has caused frustration among some officials in the Biden administration because of his past control of Starlink in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s military uses it for secure communications in the conflict with Russia. That authority over Starlink in a war zone by Mr. Musk, and not the U.S. military, created tension between him and the U.S. government.

A series of Reuters’ stories has detailed how Mr. Musk’s manufacturing operations, including at SpaceX, have harmed consumers and workers.

The Starshield network is part of intensifying competition between the U.S. and its rivals to become the dominant military power in space, in part by expanding spy satellite systems away from bulky, expensive spacecraft at higher orbits. Instead a vast, low-orbiting network can provide quicker and near-constant imaging of the Earth.

China also plans to start building its own satellite constellations, and the Pentagon has warned of space weapon threats from Russia, which could be capable of disabling entire satellite networks.

Starshield aims to be more resilient to attacks from sophisticated space powers.

The network is also intended to greatly expand the U.S. government’s remote-sensing capabilities and will consist of large satellites with imaging sensors, as well as a greater number of relay satellites that pass the imaging data and other communications across the network using inter-satellite lasers, two of the sources said.

The NRO includes personnel from the U.S. Space Force and CIA and provides classified satellite imagery for the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies.

The spy satellites will house sensors provided by another company, three of the sources said.

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Meet The Iranian-Born Billionaire Helping NASA Get Back To The Moon

Kam Ghaffarian isn’t a household name. But unlike Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who made fortunes elsewhere first, Ghaffarian actually got rich by shooting for the stars. His long-term plan? The first for-profit space station, opening by 2031.

By Giacomo Tognini, Forbes Staff

Less than 24 hours before jetting off to the Middle East and South Korea to meet investors, Kamal Ghaffarian has found a couple of hours in his schedule. Taking off his jacket, he settles into a chair in his office, a nondescript, four-story building in suburban Maryland. He asks: “Did you hear people call me ‘crazy Kam’?”

It’s a fair question. The list of companies Ghaffarian has founded reads like the pages of a science fiction novel: Axiom Space is building the world’s first commercial space station in partnership with NASA and also designed the next generation of astronaut spacesuits. (“The next time you see astronauts walking on the surface of the moon, they will be wearing Axiom Space spacesuits,” he adds.) Intuitive Machines builds lunar landers and will send one to the moon’s south pole in January (weather permitting), one of several launches it is planning that will open the moon up to commercial missions. Quantum Space is creating a space “superhighway” that will help spacecraft refuel and travel in the region between the Earth and the moon. And back down on this planet, X-Energy is making small, advanced (and meltdown-proof) nuclear reactors that can power everything from a remote military base to Dow’s 4,700-acre chemicals plant on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Crazy, indeed. But all the businesses have a common goal, according to Ghaffarian. “We need to be a multi-planetary species and also be able to go to other stars. But until then, we only have one home, right?” he says, adding, with a chuckle: “If you sort of summarize everything, [we need to] take care of our existing home and find a new home.”

The space industry is dominated by larger-than-life moguls who have poured money into rockets, rovers and rides into orbit. But, unlike Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, Ghaffarian, 65, is a rare example of someone who is a billionaire largely because of his space pursuits, rather than one who got into it after making his fortune. The key to that success? Culture, culture, culture, he says. But in a $546 billion business that’s still driven by the U.S. government, according to the nonprofit Space Foundation, it’s actually contracts, contracts, contracts.

“No one is better than Kam Ghaffarian at winning, on a competitive basis, dollars from the U.S. government,” adds J. Clay Sell, the CEO of X-Energy and a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Uncle Sam isn’t the only game in town, of course. Ghaffarian already has a laundry list of commercial clients, including the Cedars-Sinai health system (for stem cell research in microgravity), champagne producer G.H. Mumm (bubbly designed to be tasted in space) and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, which also has a partnership with Axiom Space. Then there’s foreign governments, such as Canada and Saudi Arabia, plus individuals who will pay to access space: the firm already completed two successful, all-private crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Musk’s SpaceX in April 2022 and last May, with the first featuring three commercial astronauts and the second hosting two Saudi astronauts. As of August, the company claimed to have secured more than $2.2 billion in customer contracts.

That track record has helped him win over investors. In August, Axiom Space raised an additional $350 million in a funding round led by Saudi Arabia’s Aljazira Capital and South Korean pharma outfit Boryung; the firm is valued at $2.1 billion, according to filings from another backer, ARK Invest. That same month, Intuitive Machines—which listed on Nasdaq through a blank check firm in February—closed on a $20 million private investment, shoring up its finances after a rocky debut as a public company. X-Energy, which counts Dow and private equity outfit Ares Management as investors, was valued at roughly $1.1 billion in September. The newest, and smallest, part of his fortune is Quantum Space, which raised $15 million in December. Altogether, Forbes estimates Ghaffarian is worth $2.2 billion, thanks mostly to his stakes in his space and nuclear startups. Not bad for an Iranian immigrant who landed in Washington, D.C. in 1976 with a $2,000 loan from his uncle to attend college.

“People think of Bezos, Musk, Branson and rightly so,” explains Chris Stott, the founder and CEO of Lonestar Data Holdings, which is partnering with Intuitive Machines to store data on the lunar surface. “They should also tack Kam Ghaffarian onto that list because he’s doing as much, and he’s been quite smart because he’s leveraging everything Jeff and Elon are doing.”

Ghaffarian may be an asteroid in a big galaxy compared to the likes of Musk and Bezos, who are deploying billions of dollars. But he sees those magnates not as competition so much as partners: “I have a great deal of respect for Elon and [SpaceX president] Gwynne Shotwell, they’re awesome friends. Jeff Bezos, the same,” he says.

Like these other better-known space entrepreneurs, Ghaffarian has much bolder plans. The immediate goal of building the first ever commercial space station and the lunar landers is to lower the costs of entry into space, much in the same way that SpaceX’s reusable rockets made it cheaper, easier and faster to launch missions. Think of a Tom Cruise flick shot on an actual space station or drug development in zero gravity—both of which Ghaffarian’s companies are helping turn into reality.

No one is better than Kam Ghaffarian at winning, on a competitive basis, dollars from the U.S. government.

But that’s just the start. Longer term, he says: “Our ultimate destiny is for the human race to become interstellar.”

The first step is low Earth orbit, meaning the space station. Then the moon, with landers and a human outpost. And then? “Technologies that can go beyond our solar system.”

Ghaffarian’s out-of-this-world dreams date back to his childhood in the ancient city of Isfahan, Iran, where he loved to gaze at the stars. On the night of July 20, 1969, the then-11-year-old huddled around the black-and-white TV in his neighbor’s home and watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon. “It was really a transformational moment,” he recalls. “That really triggered for me that this is what I wanted to do.”

The last American mission to the moon was in 1972. Four years later, Ghaffarian flew to Washington D.C. to study at the Catholic University of America with a $2,000 loan from his uncle. At night, he would park cars in downtown D.C. to repay that debt while finishing a double degree in computer science and engineering. Ghaffarian graduated in 1980—one year after the Iranian revolution—and never looked back.

His first job out of college was at Virginia-based IT firm Compucare, all while continuing his studies with a degree in electronics engineering and a master’s in information management. Ghaffarian’s first foray in the space industry came in 1983 when he got a gig at aerospace giant Lockheed, later moving onto Ford Aerospace, where he continued to work on contracts for NASA and the federal government. Then, in 1994, he struck out on his own with Harold Stinger, whom he’d met at Lockheed. The pair founded a company called Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies with the help of a federal program that helps minority-owned businesses. Their first office was in Ghaffarian’s basement.

“We decided to open our own company doing the same thing, basically the government contracting business,” he says. “I mortgaged a house and got $250,000 that I put together, and that’s how we got started.”

By 2006, SGT had become the 20th largest contractor for NASA with $100 million in contracts to provide engineering services and mission support. Three years later, he bought out Stinger’s stake. “He has a skill set for government contracting,” says Chris Quilty, the founder and co-CEO of space market research firm Quilty Space. “And since this is intrinsically a government market, that is a very important skill set to have.”

Another skill: his ability to coax NASA veterans to join him in the private sector. Ghaffarian’s companies are stacked with at least 18 ex-NASA rockstars, bringing a wealth of government experience but also convincing investors that they can succeed in an increasingly crowded market. In 2013, he teamed up with Stephen Altemus—the former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which led the Apollo landings on the moon—to launch Intuitive Machines. Three years later, he convinced Michael Suffredini, who managed NASA’s International Space Station program for a decade, to join him in founding Axiom Space.

“I called him and said, ‘Kam, the only thing I know how to do is build and operate a space station,’” Suffredini says of a phone call he had with Ghaffarian soon after leaving NASA. “He said, ‘okay, let me think about that.’ He called back the next day and said, ‘let’s go build a space station.’”

“It’s the most important component and it clearly is a competitive advantage,” says Kurt Scherer, managing partner at Washington, D.C.-based investment firm C5 Capital, which invested in both Axiom Space and his nuclear reactor firm X-Energy, which Ghaffarian founded in 2009.

Ghaffarian’s track record of winning contracts from NASA—he claims that SGT had a win ratio of 80%, compared to an industry average below 50%—helped Axiom Space and Intuitive Machines clinch major bids, from the spacesuits to the commercial lunar program. “This ability to bid on contracts and succeed is our secret sauce,” he adds. Even X-Energy is active in space: Last year, a joint venture with his Intuitive Machines won a $5 million contract from NASA and the Department of Energy to design a portable nuclear reactor for the lunar surface.

All of these projects require investment. That’s why Ghaffarian sold SGT in 2018 to publicly traded KBR for $355 million, giving him the cash to push his other ventures forward. “There are times that I think maybe I shouldn’t have sold, because SGT was an incredible cash flow business. But these are technology companies,” he says, pointing to Axiom Space, Intuitive Machines and X-Energy. “You’ve got to pour a lot of money into them.”

Seed funding only goes so far in space, and Ghaffarian managed to sway deep-pocketed investors to commit the funds needed to get those businesses off the ground. “Kam is one of the very few people who has the ability to see a big, bold, ambitious future and is able to get a lot of people to believe in that vision,” says Dakin Sloss, the founder and general partner of Jackson, Wyoming-based VC firm Prime Movers Lab, which has invested in both Axiom Space and Quantum Space.

Public markets haven’t been as kind as private backers. X-Energy terminated its SPAC merger with Ares Acquisition Corp. in October, a month after revising its valuation downwards by 42%. Intuitive Machines’ stock has fallen 70% since its stock market debut, as investors priced in delays to the firm’s first lunar launch. Initially scheduled for November—which would have made Ghaffarian the first to bring America back to the moon since 1972—it was pushed back to January due to “pad congestion” at Cape Canaveral. (Another U.S. company, Astrobotic, has its own lander that’s expected to launch on Christmas Eve, potentially beating Ghaffarian to the punch.)

And the competition is fierce across the board: In the nuclear industry, Bill Gates’ TerraPower, which is making a pilot reactor larger than X-Energy’s, also won a Department of Energy contract at the same time as Ghaffarian’s firm in 2020. In the realm of space stations, Axiom Space will also have to contend with Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space—founded by billionaire couple Eren and Fatih Ozmen—plus industry titans Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which are partnering with Denver-based Voyager Space, and other startups including crypto billionaire Jed McCaleb’s Vast. And besides Astrobotic and Blue Origin, Japanese startup iSpace is planning a second mission to the moon in 2024 after its first lander crashed into the lunar surface last April due to a software glitch.

Ghaffarian isn’t worried, envisioning a future where there’s more than enough business to go around for multiple small nuclear reactors, space stations and firms ferrying payloads to the moon. “Competition is healthy. It makes you more creative and innovative,” he says. His investors agree: “We want to encourage competitors because this is going to be a growing market,” adds C5 Capital’s Scherer.

The most ambitious Ghaffarian project is the Limitless Space Institute, a nonprofit that he says he came up with when he was at home meditating and thinking about the universe. (“What drives me is my spirituality and trusting God,” he says.) Based in Houston, the institute—also led by NASA veterans—partners with schools and universities and funds research into technologies that could one day enable interstellar travel, ranging from fusion-powered spacecraft (theoretically possible, but far from being a reality) to “space drives, wormholes and space warps” (still entirely conceptual).

Ghaffarian likely won’t be around if any of those happen. But he does envision a near-term future where humans live full-time on a space station and the moon. The next step in that vision is the Intuitive Machines launch to the moon in January. Then comes Axiom Space’s next astronaut mission, also scheduled for early next year. The first section of the new space station is expected to attach to the ISS in 2026—Axiom Space is the only company that can connect its modules there—with the whole structure up and running by 2031, when the ISS will be retired.

“When you talk about 10, 15, 20 years from now, my hope is that we have a space city, a place where people can actually go and live,” he says. “That would be a really nice building block toward further space exploration for human beings.”

To Ghaffarian, the motivation for building a space station and lunar landers was never just to get rich—even though his investments in them have helped make him very wealthy.

“I didn’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery and I didn’t want my life to be just about making more money,” he says, reflecting on when he sold his first business. “I wanted my life to be more about making a difference, changing the world for the better.”


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Starlink: Why the new sovereign of low-earth orbit is bad news

In January 2023, Telegram channels in Russia were flooded with undated pictures of an unmanned Ukranian drone that included a retrofitted Starlink satellite dish made by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company.

The images, a pro-Russian paramilitary group claimed, showed that the dish’s rear plastic casing had been hacked off to reduce its weight and make it easier to fit on the drone. On paper, the integration of Starlink’s satellite internet service meant that the machine could be controlled from anywhere and be used for everything from surveilling Russian troops to coordinating military strikes.

Eleven days later, responding to a video of a Russian TV anchor calling him a war criminal, Musk tweeted: “We are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes…”.

And just like that, the world was informed that a billionaire sitting 10,000 km away had effectively changed the rules of engagement for the Russia-Ukraine war.

For most of the world, Starlink’s importance in Ukraine has hammered in how high-speed satellite Internet access is quickly becoming the most valuable strategic resource in a conflict or war-stricken region. For millions of Ukranians, it was a horrifying moment of clarity on how much of their country’s future depended on the whims of just one man – an erratic tech CEO known for his ability to both push and break boundaries.

The importance of Starlink

For most of the last three decades, satellite internet ranked pretty high on the list of possible, but largely impractical, technology – somewhere between jetpacks and hover cars. The idea was simple: governments or companies would send up small satellites into space that would beam high-speed Internet to users with the help of ground stations or terminals back on earth.

In the 1990s and 2000s, most of the companies that sent up such satellites ended up failing, either due to high costs or technical difficulties. It didn’t help that the actual product at the time was bad and that the business opportunity was limited.

A lot of this changed from 2019, in large part due to Musk. Better satellites, placed closer to earth, and in a connected constellation could bring satellite internet access on par with the average broadband experience.

Today, Musk’s Starlink service is the undisputed king of the section of space called low-earth orbit (LEO). Of the roughly 7,500 active satellites that orbit Earth today, more than half are Starlink satellites.

There are a handful of competitors, some backed by governments: Viasat, OneWeb, Avanti, SES, Immarsaat, and Iridium. But none of them come close to offering the convenience, speed or affordability of Starlink.

Remote control

After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out in 2022, fibre network lines and cell towers were the first pieces of infrastructure to be destroyed, rendering Starlink as the lifeblood of Ukraine’s communication network. It also made them beholden to Musk’s mercurial personality. 

When Internet connectivity is deployed in a region, the nature of the technology is such that its operations aren’t controlled by the user, but by the company. So when the Ukrainian government wanted to switch on/off access in a particular area – for example, if a piece of territory had fallen into Russian hands and a few Starlink dishes or terminals had been lost – it had to call up Starlink each and every time. Imagine an Ukrainian army officer needing connectivity, only to find out that it’s 4 am in California and his contact at SpaceX won’t wake up for another three hours.

Musk could argue that he doesn’t want to give up control but the flipside is that he can also choose to turn the service off whenever he wishes. This is why Taiwan, in desperate need of a back-up in the event China snaps its undersea cables, suggested Starlink operate in its country through a joint venture that would have a local company own 51% of the entity. Musk refused, and talks petered out.

“If I’m China, I would ask Elon Musk to control all the satellite receivers in Taiwan. If I can control him, in an emergency I can turn it off,” Herming Chiueh, Taiwan’s deputy minister of digital affairs, later told Bloomberg.

It’s not as if a Starlink deployment can’t be customised to give any government greater control over how the service works. Media reports indicate that in June 2023, the Pentagon approved a new deal to buy 500 new Starlink terminals for Ukraine that would reduce the company’s ability to interfere in operations.

Warping how the internet works

Traditional infrastructure works on a public-utility principle. Toll-road operators don’t get to decide who uses their roads. Similarly, telecom companies don’t get to decide whether a particular region deserves no internet access because its inhabitants might use it for unsavoury purposes. Yet satellite internet companies get to insert themselves in key debates because of how the technology works and the lack of regulation.

After the September 2022 protests in Iran, the government shut off internet access in large parts of the country. Musk quickly stepped in to turn on Starlink connectivity. Activists and protestors smuggled in satellite dishes, and to date over 100 Starlink terminals are active in Iran, although the government there has declared it illegal. Short of shooting down Starlink’s satellites, Iran’s government can’t do anything.

There aren’t many that would oppose giving non-violent and democratic protestors the right to safely communicate. But it’s when the other side of the penny drops that the problem of Starlink’s monopoly becomes clear.

The New York Times reports that Musk refused Ukraine’s request in 2022 to provide Starlink connectivity near Crimea. The Ukrainian army wanted to send an explosive-filled maritime drone into Russian ships. It was only months later that Musk said that he wouldn’t allow Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who serves as Musk’s lieutenant, went a step further and took Ukraine to task over their use of the satellite internet technology, saying the country had leveraged it in ways that were “not part of any agreement”.

Starlink sits outside the realm of a typical government-to-government defence deal, yet these decisions get to be taken not by a government accountable to its citizens but a handful of tech company employees.

A satellite race

The obvious solution is that we need more LEO satellite constellations – government, private or some combination of the two – that provide Internet access.

Starlink’s monopoly was the result of many factors. Admittedly, Musk’s foresight is one; extremely light regulation from the Federal Communications Commission is another.

The secret sauce though is that SpaceX’s partly reusable rockets give Starlink a non-stop elevator to get satellites into LEO in a relatively inexpensive manner. This is where its serious competitors trip up.

Rival firm OneWeb, whose biggest shareholders are Bharti Airtel’s holding company and the U.K. government, were forced to abort a launch in Russia after Putin demanded the satellites not be used against Moscow. OneWeb took a $230 million hit after Russia refused to return its satellites too.

This is why more government-specific projects are needed. In 2022, the European Union earmarked EUR 2.4 billion to set up a “sovereign” satellite constellation to be rolled out by 2027. China has its own plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO mega constellation to rival Starlink.

Starlink’s disputes with Ukraine and other countries should serve as a wake-up call of how the power of the stars is quickly being concentrated in the hands of just one man, and a worrying lesson for any country or government looking to depend on Musk for connectivity.

Anuj Srivas is a freelance technology writer.

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Explained | What is a Reusable Launch Vehicle? Who is using it now? How far along is India?

Inching closer to a fully reusable launch vehicle, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully carried out the landing experiment of the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration (RLV-TD) programme on April 2, 2023.

ISRO executed the landing experiment at the Aeronautical Test Range in Challakere, Chitradurga. The RLV was dropped by an Indian Air Force (IAF) Chinook helicopter from an altitude of 4.5 km. The vehicle performed approach and landing manoeuvres on the runway autonomously, under the conditions in which a re-entry vehicle from space might return — at high speed and without human inputs, to achieve a stable landing.

The success of this test marks yet another milestone in ISRO’s mission to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle as part of its vision to enable low-cost access to space.

Currently, ISRO has three active launch vehicles: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and the Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM3). The PSLV has four stages while the GSLVs have three stages each. Each stage has a different fuel, and is jettisoned when the fuel is expended as the rocket ascends.

What is a reusable launch vehicle?

Primarily, launch vehicles comprise three or four stages apart from the payload, which needs to be launched into a polar or a geosynchronous orbit, depending on a mission’s requirements. In ISRO’s three-stage rockets, the first — or lowermost— stage has a motor fuelled by solid fuel (in the GSLV, this can also be augmented by up to four liquid strap-on boosters); the second stage has the Vikas engine powered by liquid fuel; and the third and uppermost stage has a cryogenic engine, which uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

LVM3(Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III)

In the four-stage PSLV, the first stage has a motor using solid fuel (augmentable with up to six solid-fuel strap-on boosters), the second stage has a Vikas engine, the third stage again has a solid-fuel motor, and the fourth stage has two liquid engines.

The RLV that ISRO is building has only two stages to propel the vehicle into orbit. Once the fuel in the first stage has been expended, the vehicle will shed it, and carry on with the second stage. Once it has been shed, the first stage will re-enter the atmosphere and land in an autonomous fashion at a pre-determined location. After some maintenance, it will be available for reuse.

Have RLVs been used in the past?

Since the 1960s, experts have conceived reusable rockets as a way to lower the cost of space missions. In the most idealised version, they imagined a single-stage-to-orbit rocket that could take off and land vertically.

The American aerospace manufacturing company McDonnell Douglas realised this dream in 1993, building the Delta Clipper (DC-X) to demonstrate lift-off, maintain altitude, and a landing on its tail. The project was later transferred to NASA’s Reusable Launch Vehicle program after the cost of each test flight proved to be too expensive. In its twelfth flight in 1996, the DC-X crashed and burned on landing, extensively damaging its exterior chassis.

NASA later shelved the project due to budgetary constraints, bringing this chapter of the single-stage to-orbit launch vehicle to an end.

The DC-X backs into its parking spot at White Sands in September 1993

The DC-X backs into its parking spot at White Sands in September 1993
| Photo Credit:
 Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

What reusable technologies are currently in play in spaceflight?

Several DC-X engineers subsequently moved to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin. On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin’s reusable space vehicle ‘New Shepherd’ successfully undertook a suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 329,839 feet, and then performed a controlled landing back at its launch site in West Texas with the help of a parachute drop.

Perhaps the most famous player in the reusable spaceflight sector is is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2001. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX, among others, are developing rockets with reusable parts, especially the first stage, rather than the whole vehicle being reusable.

SpaceX initially attempted to salvage the rocket’s first stage using parachutes; but the boosters would break before the parachutes were deployed.

Then came the Falcon 9 in 2010, a 54-metre-tall two-stage rocket with nine engines, capable of transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Instead of using parachutes to recover the first stage, the Falcon 9 was equipped with retrograde thrusters, using which the first stage could come back down to a designated spot using its engines themselves.

Initially, Falcon 9 attempted soft landings in the ocean as they did not have a landing site. After several failures, on its 20th attempt, a Falcon 9 was launched with a light payload to the ISS. Ten minutes after launch, the first stage — its duty done — turned back down and descended smoothly at a landing pad at Cape Canaveral.

Thus far (May 19, 2023), Falcon 9 first stages have had 220 launches, 178 landings and 155 re-flights.

In addition to these companies, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and ISRO have also been undertaking R&D on other aspects of reusable launch systems.

What is ISRO working on?

In 2010, ISRO began developing a winged reusable rocket, taking the first step towards realising a two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) launch vehicle that could be fully reusable. On May 23, 2016, the winged vehicle successfully flew at hypersonic speed. It also withstood fiery re-entry temperatures as it re-entered, qualifying its thermal protection systems, before it touched down at a pre-determined site 425 km east of Sriharikota, in the Bay of Bengal.

RLV HEX-01 mission

RLV HEX-01 mission

While several other related technologies have been tested through the years, ISRO’s RLV’s autonomous landing was only tested successfullyon April 2, 2023.

Currently, ISRO is working on the ‘Orbital Re-entry Experiment’ (ORE), which will be taken to orbit by a modified launch vehicle comprising existing GSLV and PSLV stages. The vehicle will stay in orbit for a stipulated period, re-enter, and finally land autonomously on a runway, with landing gear.

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