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US Air Force to develop reusable rockets by 2013

WASHINGTON (PTI): The US Air Force plans to develop reusable rockets that would be able to fly back to earth and land autonomously on a runway.

For this ambitious vision, the Air Force Research Laboratory is rolling out a USD 33-million pathfinder programme to develop a prototype booster that can glide or fly itself back to the launch site, the Discovery News reported.

If things will go as planned, the prototype would be ready by 2013, giving the Air Force a round-trip ticket to space, the report said.

Currently, most military satellites are launched on one-time-use rockets, such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles. The best-known reusable boosters are flown on the space shuttles, but recycling them is no easy task.

The solid-fuel rockets, which are jettisoned two minutes after liftoff, parachute down into the ocean where they are retrieved by ship. Getting them ready to fly again is labour-intensive and expensive.

The first step of the new project would likely be aimed at demonstrating a turn-around manoeuvre known as "rocket-back," whereby a rocket would use its own engines to fly back to the launch site and glide in for landing, the report said.

More than a decade ago, NASA studied fly-back boosters as part of a potential suite of upgrades to the space shuttles, but never pursued its development.

At present, two companies - Lockheed Martin and Starcraft Boosters - reportedly hold patents for fly-back boosters.

In 2008, Lockheed Martin quietly tested a sub-scale reusable fly-back rocket prototype, but the details of the test flight were not released.

A team from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, flew a single-stage reusable launch vehicle three times - once successfully - and a two-stage vehicle once.

"Our two big areas of concern were the separation of the vehicle so that it would come off the centre stage in a way that wouldn't damage or impede the flight, and how to control it on the way down," Trevor Foster, project manager for the 2001-02 test programme, told Discovery News.

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