India needs to move quickly to address technology glitches that have resulted in back-to-back failures of the GSLV rocket if it is to realize its ambition of competing in the international market for the commercial launch of heavy satellites, experts say.
But the second failure of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) on Saturday is unlikely to mar the country’s reputation as an emerging centre for the launch of smaller satellites, they said. India had been hoping to use the GSLV for its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan II, to be followed by a manned mission.
The 418-tonne rocket, carrying a 2.3-tonne communications satellite, lifted off from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, at around 4pm on Saturday in a mission that was aborted 63 seconds later by space agency officials, who concluded that the rocket had veered considerably off its designated flight path. The wreckage fell into the Bay of Bengal.
The geosynchronous satellite (GSAT-5P) it was carrying was built at the satellite centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in Bangalore at a cost of Rs125 crore. The advanced communication satellite, carrying 36 transponders, was crucial for India’s telecommunication sector and the weather department. It was meant to replace the workhorse INSAT-2E satellite launched in 1999.
Although the reasons for the failure are being probed, Isro chairman K. Radhakrishnan told a press conference on Saturday that the boosters strapped to the GSLV did not receive command signals to propel the rocket further. The original launch date had been postponed by five days as a valve of the Russian cryogenic engine fitted on the rocket developed a leakage of liquid hydrogen.
It was the second abortive attempt this year to launch the GSLV. The previous rocket, which crashed into the sea on 15 April, had been fitted with an indigenously developed cryogenic engine, and billed as a vital first step towards India carrying out a manned lunar mission in the 2020s.
Consecutive failure: The rocket carrying the GSLV satellite explodes after lifting off from Sriharikota on Sunday. PTI
“Isro should have a few successful launches to demonstrate its reliability and consistency and then only we can get into the market (for launch of heavy satellites),” said K. Sridhara Murthy, former managing director of Antrix Corp. Ltd, the commercial arm of ISRO. “There are many boundaries and conditions to apply to demonstrate the capability in international market and the two recent failures are a setback in that direction.”
Antrix markets India’s satellite launch capability to foreign clients and sells satellite imagery to 20 countries. It has commitments to launch satellites for several customers, including those from Canada, Germany, Italy, Singapore and Algeria.
Over the last decade, India has launched nearly 25 satellites—its own as well as foreign ones—using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) developed in the 1990s. Experts say that the PSLV technology is well understood and will continue to help India commercially launch small satellites that weigh less than 2.5 tonnes. India has a significant cost advantage over more established entities in the space launch market.
“Several of the communication satellites, and those used for mapping, weather services are small-sized and these are the ones that Argentina and Brazil are using. This failure might just dent that image, but I don’t think this will significantly impact India’s cost effectiveness,” said Ajay Lele, an expert on strategic affairs and space studies at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
Lele did, however, emphasize that this only meant that Isro wasn’t yet ready to take on the major competitors in the satellite launch market—the US, the European Space Agency, Russia and France—if it wanted to launch satellites that weighed three-five tonnes. India could also still develop its technology for making satellites.
India has used up six of the seven cryogenic engines it procured from Russia.
“We’ll need one for the Chandraayan moon mission,” Lele said. “Therefore, any programmes after that will require our own indigenous engine and we’re a long way from perfecting that. We can still concentrate on developing satellites, which is big business in itself.”
Scientific experts say that because the recent failures of the GSLV involved components that were common to the PSLV, the snags were likely to be more “engineering-related” and less about a fundamental lack of understanding about the technology.
“The stage at which failure took place is well understood, as it’s common to the PSLV rockets too. It must have been more engineering-related—and here even small errors are hugely magnified and may slip through even the most thorough checks—and unlikely a serious, conceptual worry. By comparison, the April failure was much bigger when the engine itself failed to ignite,” said P.S. Goel, a former Isro scientist.
U.R. Rao, a former Isro chairman, concurred and added that the Chandraayan II mission planned for 2013 wasn’t likely to be compromised.
“We will have to wait and watch if the other programmes are going to be affected or not. The review is going on at the moment. I don’t see any concern for the Chandrayaan II launch at the moment,” he said.
Isro launched six GSLV rockets with satellites, of which only two missions were successful and one billed a partial success. The remaining three failed to put the satellites in the intended geosynchronous transfer orbit. The two successful launches were in 2003 and 2004, when an experimental communication satellite GSAT-2 and another for educational purposes, Edusat, were placed in a geosynchronous orbit.