India takes leap towards manned space missions

Isro successfully test-fires experimental unmanned crew module using the country's largest rocket GSLV Mark III

Nikita Mehta
Updated19 Dec 2014
The 630-tonne GSLV Mark III rocket with two enormous solid boosters shot into the sky from a launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 9:30am. Photo: AFP<br />
The 630-tonne GSLV Mark III rocket with two enormous solid boosters shot into the sky from a launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 9:30am. Photo: AFP

Sriharikota: Indian space scientists on Thursday successfully launched an experimental unmanned crew module from the nation’s largest rocket, bringing India a step closer to sending its own astronauts into space.

In about five-and-a-half minutes into the flight, the launcher had carried its payload—the 3,775kg cupcake-shaped Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE)—to the intended height of 126km, a long orange flame following the rocket.

At this point, CARE separated from the upper stage of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III and re-entered the atmosphere and safely splashed down at the designated spot in the Bay of Bengal with the help of its parachutes about 20 minutes 43 seconds after lift-off.

The module—the size of a small bedroom—is designed to accommodate as many as three astronauts in a future Indian manned mission to space.

This experiment was meant to validate a number of technologies developed under the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) ‘critical technologies for human spaceflight’ programme.

The 630-tonne rocket with two enormous solid boosters shot into the sky from a launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 9.30am.

“The performance of the solid and the liquid stage was as expected. We also had the unmanned crew module to understand the re-entry characteristics. The crew module has splashed down as expected in the Bay of Bengal. And has worked extremely well,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman, Isro, to thunderous applause in the mission control centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Isro scientists, tweeting that the “successful launch of GSLV Mark III is yet another triumph of brilliance and hard work of our scientists”.

“We have a new launch vehicle! The payload capacity will be significantly enhanced with the development of this launch vehicle. We are confident that in the next two years, we will have the operational cryogenic stage ready and will be able to launch several satellites using this launch vehicle,” said GSLV project director S. Somnath.

The launch vehicle in its experimental flight was carrying a dummy cryogenic stage, as the purpose of the mission was to test the other two stages, flight validation of its complex atmospheric flight and the re-entry of the unmanned crew module.

How it unfolded

GSLV Mark III is designed to be a three-stage vehicle, 42.4m tall, with a lift-off weight of 630 tonnes.

The first stage comprises two identical S200 large solid boosters (LSBs) with a 207-tonne solid propellant which ignited at lift-off, and after functioning normally separated after 153 seconds. The second stage, the liquid re-startable stage, ignited 120 seconds after lift-off and took the rocket forward for the next 204 seconds. The third stage is the cryogenic stage which was non-functional in this experiment.

The crew module separated from the passive C25 cryogenic upper stage of GSLV Mark III 330.8 seconds after lift-off and began its descent for atmospheric re-entry. A new separation system involving six jettisoning motors was used for this test for S200 solid booster separation, and it worked “beautifully”, according to Somnath.

During the re-entry of the crew module, the velocity of 5.3km per second was reduced to 230m per second, a number of fire-ons were activated and the parachute sequence was initiated.

The velocity further came down to 15m per second as the team received continuous data from the capsule’s onboard system. With the help of the parachutes, the module safely landed over the Andaman Sea about 1,600km from Sriharikota, concluding the GSLV Mark III X/CARE mission.

The preparation for the experimental flight began in February this year, according to M.Y.S. Prasad, director of Satish Dhawan Space Centre. In January, Isro successfully launched the GSLV D5 with an indigenous cryogenic stage, which has been worked on by Isro scientists for over three decades.

“This will change our destiny in placing heavier spacecrafts in communication orbits,” Somnath said. Once operational, GSLV Mark III could launch four-tonne communication satellites, reducing the country’s dependence on foreign launch vehicle services. The vehicle will have multi-mission launch capability for geosynchronous transfer orbit, polar and intermediate circular orbit.

For now, scientists are hard at work at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre to get the cryogenic stage ready for its developmental flight.

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