After 20 years of toil, the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) on Sunday took a quantum leap in mastering a rocket technology that puts it in the big league of space faring nations, following a demonstration of the first-ever perfect performance of its indigenously developed cryogenic engine in the course of a successful flight of its Geo Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).
Dogged by setbacks and failure over the last six years, the heavy lift GSLV, which has the capacity to put satellites weighing over 2,000 kg in space, launched the 1,982 kg GSAT-14 communication satellite and put it in a near perfect orbit on Sunday.
The launch sequence of the GSLV, marred by a launch pad fuel leakage on August 19, 2013 and the failure to fire off the cryogenic stage on April 15, 2010, went perfectly as planned on Sunday, with the cryogenic upper third stage firing through a course of 12 minutes, with the predicted revolutions per minute to take the satellite to an altitude of 205 km with a velocity of 9,785 metres per second.
The significance of the success of the flight of the GSLV-D5 was evident from the jubilant cheers in the launch control room at Sriharikota as the cryogenic engine fired at 4 minutes and 53 seconds — after the rocket was ignited at 4:18 pm — and burned out at 16 minutes and 55 seconds.
The GSLV-D5 placed the GSAT-14 communication satellite in an orbit with an apogee (nearest distance to earth) of 179 km, against a targeted 180 km with a 5 km margin for error, and a perigee (furthest distance from earth) of 36,025 km against a target of 35,975 km with a 675 km margin of error.
The successful demonstration of the use of cryogenic engine technology in the upper stage of the GSLV puts India among a league five other nations — the US, Russia, France, Japan and China — that possess the technology that is considered the ultimate frontier in rocket science.
The jubilation in ISRO on Sunday came after over 20 years of efforts to develop the technology marked by frequent failures and upheavals.
“ISRO has done it. The Indian cryogenic upper stage performed as predicted for the mission and perfectly injected the GSAT 14 into the intended orbit. I would say this is an important day for the country and for science and technology in the country,” said ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan.
“Twenty years of efforts have been fruitful today. The excruciating efforts of the last three years after the indigenous cryogenic stage did not fire has resulted in success,” he said.
“The GSLV is not the naughty boy of ISRO anymore, it has become obedient,” said K Sivan, mission director for the GSLV-D5 launch and director of the GSLV programme, following the successful flight.
With the success of the indigenous GSLV on Sunday, ISRO will work towards realising the advanced GSLV Mk III rocket which will be able to launch satellites weighing over 4,000 kg. “An experimental mission will be done in a few months to study its performance. More work is needed in the high thrust cryo engine of the GSLV Mk III. The first developmental flight will be a couple of years from now,” said Radhakrishnan.
The cryogenic stage on the GSLV is the third stage and uses liquid hydrogen as fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidiser. Cryogenic stage is a highly efficient rocket stage that provides more thrust for every kg of propellant it burns compared to solid and earth-storable liquid propellant stages. The specific impulse achievable with cryo fluids is 450 seconds compared to 300 seconds for other fuels.
India had first ventured on the path of obtaining cryogenic technology in 1992 with a two-pronged strategy of purchasing cryogenic engines from Russia and acquiring the technology from the US. Following the 1998 nuclear tests and sanctions imposed by the US on dual use technologies, the cryogenic technology was denied by the US. ISRO used seven cryogenic engines sold by Russia for the early phase of its GSLV programme that began in 2001 while developing an indigenous technology in parallel. The GSLV launches with the Russian engines have had mixed success with only two flights perfectly to plan.
Following the successful flight of the GSLV-D5, ISRO is set to attempt flights to launch the GSAT-6 — originally intended for the controversial private company Devas Multimedia but subsequently diverted for national security purposes — before opening it for commercial purposes. The GSAT-6 launch can occur in nine months time, the ISRO chairman said.
The successful testing of the indigenous GSLV will push through preparations for India’s second mission to the moon Chandrayaan 2 — where ISRO proposes to land a rover on the moon.
In the absence of a reliable heavy lift rocket technology India has relied on France for launching its heavy class of satellites.
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