An innovative and light weight rocket that uses air-breathing propulsion to suck in oxygen from the air as a propellant fuel, will be launched in India in less than 3 months time, according to a senior Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) official.

The test flight of the rocket, which inhales oxygen from the air to fire itself into space, will be conducted from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in January next year.

Almost 85% of the weight carried by standard rockets like the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) is propellant, comprising of both fuel and super-cooled liquid oxygen. For this innovative new rocket however, using the oxygen available in the atmosphere to burn fuel will significantly reduce the weight on board as the rocket will not have to carry the cryogenic liquid oxygen.

The test will be conducted on a Rohini-series sounding rocket weighing only 125kg which ISRO uses for routine atmospheric studies, noted Byrana Nagappa Suresh, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.

A switchover to air-breathing propulsion is a big step towards cutting launch costs from $12,000 per kg to between $500-1000 per kg. Suresh told guests at the annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences of the technological difficulties that may be encountered, “It’s like lighting a matchstick in a hurricane. But there is no reason why we can’t do it, when most turbojet engine-fired commercial aircraft do it.”

This positive belief in the technology is supported by H.S.A. Mukunda, an aerospace scientist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, as commented, “It is a good thing that ISRO is finally adopting the air-breathing propulsion system. But they should have done it 20 years ago.”

ISRO eventually plans to use air-breathing technology in reusable launch vehicles, which can be recovered after launching a satellite successfully into orbit. The first reusable rocket is scheduled to hit the launch-pad later next year and according to ISRO’s road map, by 2020 its launch vehicles will use 2 stages to put satellites into orbit. The first stage will be recoverable while in the second, the vehicle will be blown-up in space after completing its mission.