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SPACE TRANSPORT: Spacecraft : AVATAR

Last Updated: June 24, 2002

The 'Aerobic Vehicle for hypersonic Aerospace TrAnpoRtation' (AVATAR) is a hyperplane concept from India. It is planned to be the size of a MiG-25 fighter and would be capable of delivering a 500 kg to 1000 kg payload to low earth orbit at a rather petty rate of $67 per kg assuming an airframe life of 100 launches.

Weighing only 25 tonnes - 60 per cent of which is liquid hydrogen fuel - Avatar is said to be capable of entering into a 100-km orbit in a single stage and launching satellites weighing up to one tonne.

It is also said that the AVATAR will make space solar power (SSP) stations affordable providing a global solution for the coming energy crisis. The idea being that a string of satellites in space will convert sunlight into microwaves and beam to earth where it will be turned into electricity. Till now SSP stations were unthinkable because of high cost of space launches but Avatar can change that, Indian scientists hope.

AVATAR Graphic

Operation

AVATAR would take off horizontally like conventional airplanes from conventional airstrips using turbo-ramjet engines that burn air and hydrogen. Once at a cruising altitude, the vehicle would use scramjet propulsion to accelerate from Mach 4 to Mach 8. During these cruising phases, an on-board system will collect air from which liquid oxygen will be separated. The liquid oxygen collected then would be used in the final flight phase, when the rocket engine burns the collected liquid oxygen and the carried hydrogen to attain orbit. The vehicle will be designed to permit at least a hundred re-entries into the atmosphere.

Apart from AVATAR, Andrews Space & Technology (USA) Alchemist TSTO RLV is another concept that aims to generate LOX in flight.

According to the Designers, Hyperplane projects of the 1980's - the X-30, Tu-2000 etc, failed due to their immense weight. Hence it is the weight which is the promising aspect of AVATAR.

Development

AVATAR or Avtar was first announced in May 1998 at the 'Aero India 98' ehxibition held at Bangalore. Initially it was then called the 'Aerobic Vehicle for Advanced Trans-Atmospheric Research', which means that it has now progressed into a more viable RLV and military role.

Avtar means rebirth in Sanskrit, signifying that it is a scaled-down version of the first 230-ton Hyperplane India promoted in the early 1990's but later abandoned because of its high cost, estimated at $10 billion to $12 billion.

The AVATAR is being developed by India's Defence Research and Development Organisation or DRDO. Air Commodore Raghavan Gopalaswami(Retd.), former chief of Bharat Dynamics Ltd, Hyderabad (which produces India's military missiles) is heading the project. He made the presentation on the space plane at the global conference on propulsion at Salt Lake City (USA) on July 10, 2001. Gopalaswami said the idea for Avatar originated from the work published by the Rand Corporation of the United States in 1987. "They threw the report into archives. It came to me as an unclassified document and formed the basis for our approach," he said.

The AVATAR is currently only in the conceptual stage. The initial development budget is only $5 million, but project supporters claim that the vehicle can be built in ten years with total funding of under $2 billion. Designers admit, however, that international assistance would be required for the project to reach its goal.

In addition to the DRDO team working on the conceptual design, development of technology components is being undertaken by as many as 23 academic institutions (IITs, IISc etc) in India as well. A Hyderabad-based private company CIM Technologies is also participating in the project.

Both the scramjet engine concept and the liquid oxygen collection process have already undergone successful tests at DRDO and at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. DRDO has approved further testing of the liquid oxygen process and assigned a team to conduct a detailed review of the vehicle’s design.

Currently DRDO plans to build and fly a scaled down version called Light-Avatar (LAVATAR?), weighing just 3 tonnes at take off. To be built by CIM technologies by 2006, mini-Avatar will not go into space but will demonstrate all technologies used in Avatar including oxygen collection. It will use the India's Kabini jet engine.

It is claimed that the real AVATAR would be viable by as early as 2013-2015(!) - provided international co-operation is available. This is highly unlikely, since 'cooperation' here would result in violating the Missile Transfer Control Regime (MTCR), which has been vigourously applied to India and Russia when India wanted tranfer of Cryogenic engine technology from the latter in the early 1990's.

X-43 Graphic

Interestingly, AVATAR design has already been patented in India and applications for registration of the design have been filed in patent offices in the United States, Germany, Russia and even China.

Hypersonic flight is one of the most important objectives of space industry and science. It will open up a new way of travel, not only to space but to different parts of earth. A lot of research is going on all round the world to make it possible. NASA's X-43 is the biggest of them all. A lot of pioneering work is required. While India has done some ground experiments, it is still far from producing it's own air-breathing rocket engine. Indians have'nt even mastered cryogenic engines , technology now taken for granted in the west.

The primary objective of X-43 is to flight test the scramjet, which is the obvious first step in this direction. No other project has gone far as it has. The first test flight took place on 2 June 2001, which failed. Other AVATAR-like projects include USA's HyperSoar and erstwhile programs like Tu-2000 (Soviet Union) and X-30(US).

February 2002 - G. Madhavan Nair, Director Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) told journalists that "We have plans for a reusable two-stage vehicle which can take off and land like an aircraft". He expected this system to reduce existing launch costs by a factor of 10 (The Times of India, February 4, 2002). It is not clear what vehicle this is, whether it is a new concept or perhaps the result of continuing research on AVATAR.

Also See :
Spacecraft Tech : Hypersonic Flight and Scramjets
Spacecraft Tech : X-43 Hyper-X
Spacecraft Tech:HTOL SSTO Design
Spacecraft : HyperSoar
Spacecraft:MiG-2000
Spacecraft:Tu-2000
Aircraft:LCA
Aircraft:MCA

Do check out these hand-picked links before go to your favorite search engines!
drdo.org: Defence Research and Development Organisation
isro.org: Indian Space Research Organisation
ada.gov.in: Aeronautical Development Authority
cmmacs.ernet.in/nal/: National Aerospace Authority (India)
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