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What the GSLV launch means for India's space programme

January 07, 2014 14:23 IST

It is important for India to develop multiple launch sites and become capable of undertaking more launches in a year's time, says Ajey Lele.

India’s space programme has mostly been a success story. However, one success that was eluding the Indian Space Research Organisation for many years was its indigenous Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle programme. Finally the jinx was broken on January 5, 2014, with the successful launch of GSLV-D5, and India was able to begin the new year on a successful note.

The GSLV-D5 mission has put the GSAT-14 satellite into space. This satellite would be mainly used for tele-education and tele-medicine, and joins India’s nine operational geostationary satellites already out in space. What is novel about this mission is actually not about the satellite but about the launching system itself.

A country gets recognition as a “space-faring nation” when it develops its own capability to build a satellite and launch it by its own launching system (rocket). India demonstrated this capability in the 1980s. However, for all these years India has been in a position to launch satellites which are less than two tonnes in weight, normally in the weight category between 1000 and 1700 kg. This has mainly become possible because of India’s most successful rocket programme called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle programme. So far, PSLV has delivered 64 satellites in orbit with a record of 23 successful rocket launches out of 25.

Unfortunately, in the case of GSLV launcher the story is a bit different. Since 2001 India’s attempted GSLV launches has been a mixed bag. Out of the seven launches before August 19, 2013, only two were fully successful and one was partially successful. The launch on August 19, 2013, was called off hardly one hour before the event due to the detection of leakage of fuel from the second stage of the rocket system. The major technological challenge to undertake the GSLV launch lies in the development of the cryogenic engine. Among the seven GSLV launches, only one was with the ISRO designed and built cryogenic engine (on April 15, 2010) and that was a failure. Hence, the success of GSLV-D5 indicates that ISRO has succeeded with its indigenous cryogenic technology.

During the 1990s the United States put pressure on Russia to not sell this technology to India due to the fear that the latter will use it for missile development. Russia was permitted to sell only six cryogenic engines to India. Particularly since early 2000, India has been trying to develop cryogenics on its own but could only taste success now.

For launching heavy satellites, particularly in the range of two to five tonnes, into geostationary orbit (36,000 km above the earth’s surface) ISRO has been developing the GSLV rocket. The cryogenic engine is essential for the launch of heavy satellites because it can develop more thrust required for the purpose and carry satellites to a much higher orbit. The GSLV–D5 mission has three stages -- solid, liquid and cryogenic. The last stage is very complex compared to the solid or earth-storable liquid propellant stages. The cryogenic stage uses propellants (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) at extremely low temperatures. Oxygen liquefies at minus 183 deg C and hydrogen at minus 253 deg C. These propellants, at such low temperatures, are to be pumped using turbo pumps running at around 40,000 rpm. Also, for the development of such engines, associated thermal and structural problems are required to be addressed.

For all these years that India’s space programme achieved various successes, the non-availability of GSLV had put significant amount of restrictions for India to dream big. In spite of various achievements India was lagging behind major space powers like China and Japan. Because of the absence of the heavy launcher, India suffered technologically, economically and politically.

It is important to appreciate that various other recent missions by ISRO, like to Moon and Mars, are missions with long-term consequences, these missions are technology demonstration ones. However, the GSLV should be viewed as a “bread and butter” mission. India’s future growth in space depends exclusively on its success with the GSLV launcher. It is a challenge to India’s scientific community to prove its technological competence with the production of a fully reliable cryogenic engine.

All these years India was not able to launch heavy satellites into geostationary orbit (usually communication satellites), particularly the INSAT series of satellites, and India used to outsource the launch to a French agency on commercial terms. Now, in future, India will be able to launch its satellites on its own. This could amount to significant savings. Also, with its PSLV craft India has entered into the global launch business. Now, India could also make the GSLV available for the launch of heavier satellites on commercial terms.

Indian’s success with cryogenic technology is not only about increasing the ISRO’s prestige but also about sending a message to the rest the world that India is the ‘new kid on the block’ offering commercial launch facilities. For India it has always been possible to provide cost-effective launch facilities, and the same is expected from GSLV too. What is important for India is to develop multiple launch sites and become capable of undertaking more launches in a year. There are many countries which are keen to engage India on commercial terms.

India was not in a position to undertake the second Moon mission because of the non-availability of the GSLV platform, and also could undertake a Mars mission (using PSLV) with less scientific payload (15 kg) for the same reason. India was forced to take the assistance of France for the launch of its first strategic satellite for the Navy called GSAT-8 a few months back.

All in all now ISRO needs to quickly undertake more launches to fully validate its system and strive to bring on the same reliability with this system as it has achieved with the PSLV.

Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at IDSA.

Ajey Lele