Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh: India’s attempt to join a select club of nations to own cryogenic engine technology—necessary for launching heavy satellites—was aborted on Thursday after its rocket failed within five minutes of lifting off.
The mission failure is a commercial setback for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), which hopes to enter the communication satellite launch market.
“Customers will come to us (for GSLV) only when there is consistency in the launches,” said K.R. Sridhara Murthi, managing director of Antrix Corp., the commercial arm of Isro.
India has spent more than two decades and Rs335 crore on developing the cryogenic engine, a restricted technology owned only by the US, Russia, Japan and China.
India began developing the advanced rocket technology in the 1990s after Russia, under pressure from the US, declined to transfer the know-how even as it lent seven engines.
Big blow: The GSLV-D3 rocket takes off. India had spent over two decades and Rs335 crore in developing the advanced rocket technology. AFP
Thursday’s debacle of the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV-D3) would push back Isro by at least a year, the time its scientists say is needed to fill crucial technology gaps.
The GSLV is a three-stage rocket. The first two stages are powered by solid and liquid fuel. Five minutes into flight, the rocket’s cryogenic or third stage powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, was switched on, but two small engines that control the final stage carrying the satellite into space failed to ignite. The rocket then plunged into the Bay of Bengal.
Isro has been through rocket failures in the past. Its first GSLV launch using the Russian cryogenic engines couldn’t hurl the satellite in the intended orbit. Its 2006 mission, too, saw the rocket plunging into the sea minutes after launch.
Isro’s workhorse third-generation rocket polar satellite launch vehicle, or PSLV, failed in its first attempt in 1993, but has since completed 12 launches. The space agency has lined up a PSLV launch in May to carry five satellites.
The aborted mission, which cost Rs325 crore, also lost a 2.2 tonne fifth-generation communication satellite, GSAT-4, which was to be a technology demonstrator for India’s satellite navigation programme. The satellite also had Ka-band transponders used for high-speed Internet broadcast and electric propulsion for deep space missions.
“The vernier engines failed to ignite,” said Isro chairman K. Radhakrishnan, immediately after the mission failed. Vernier engines are small motors that control the wavering of a spacecraft in flight.
Later, in a press briefing, he said: “We are not sure now whether the main engine did ignite. This we have to verify. We need to have a detailed analysis; why it happened and what are the corrective measures to be taken.”
Radhakrishnan added Isro would launch the next indigenous cryogenic engine within a year.
Of the seven engines imported from Russia, only five have been used since 2001. Isro has plans for two more GSLV flights this year using Russian engines, GSAT-5B and GSAT-6.
Isro is also working on a GSLV MkIII, a rocket with capability to carry 4-tonne satellites into space. The same rocket would be used for India’s manned space mission planned for 2016.