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Photograph: Nasa.gov

India's space agency successfully tested a model reusable launch vehicle on Monday, marking the first step of the country's indigenous space shuttle programme.

A rocket carrying the unmanned Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology-Demonstrator took off from the Sriharikota spaceport in southern India and released it at an altitude of 70 kilometres, Indian Space Research Organisation spokesman DP Karnik said.

The winged vehicle then made a 180-degree manoeuvre before re-entering the atmosphere for a controlled splashdown in the Bay of Bengal about 10 minutes later.

"The mission has been accomplished successfully," Karnik said.

The trial version had a length of 6.5 metres, about one-sixth of the actual design. The space agency expects to launch a full-scale shuttle within the next 10 to 15 years, that should also be able to carry astronauts.

Another key objective of the programme is to significantly reduce costs of space launches.

It could help cut cost of satellite launches by up to 90 per cent, scientists said. Space agencies worldwide spend an average 20,000 dollars per kilogram to make and use medium and heavy rockets for launches.

"The cost of access to space is the major deterrent in space exploration and space utilization," the agency said on its website. "A reusable launch vehicle is the unanimous solution to achieve low cost, reliable and on-demand space access."

With the launch, India has entered the race for a reusable spacecraft. Until now, the United States was the only country to possess operational space shuttle technology, but it retired the programme in 2011.

The European Space Agency launched a prototype last year. Billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have also undertaken test launches.

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