A 1,000-second flight of India's heavy rocket, the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), on Sunday propelled the country into an elite club of spacefaring nations, capping a two-decade long effort by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) in mastering the crucial cryogenic propulsion technology.
The launch of GSLV D5, which came three years after a failed attempt, paves way for Isro to launch heavy communications satellites on its own, undertake bigger space missions and also compete globally in satellite launch services. Currently, a handful of countries including the United States, France, Russia and China dominate the market for launching large satellites and Isro has been relying on foreign launch services in adding more transponder capacity to meet growing domestic demand.
“I am proud to say Isro has done it. The Indian cryogenic engine and stage performed as predicted, as expected, for this mission and injected precisely the GSAT 14 communications satellite into the intended orbit,” Isro chairman KRadhakrishnan announced after the launch from the space agency’s facility at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. “This is an important day for science and technology in the country and 20 years of effort in realising the cryogenic engine and stage has now been fructified.”
A cryogenic rocket stage is more efficient and provides more thrust for every kilogramme of propellant it burns compared with solid and liquid propellant rocket stages. But is also technically complex because of the use of propellants at extremely low temperatures and the associated thermal and structural problems. The GSLV is a three-stage vehicle with solid, liquid and cryogenic propulsion systems.
Over the past decade, Isro has built a brand for itself by building and launching small satellites at a cost much lower than most countries through its workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). So far, Isro has launched 35 foreign satellites with this rocket.
But the space agency's success with the GSLV, which can put satellites weighing more than 2,000 kg into space, has been limited because of the complex cryogenic technology. The programme, which had seen seven flights until Sunday including those with Russian cryogenic engines, has had mixed results with half the missions failing.
The first developmental flight of an indigenous cryogenic engine in April 2010 had failed because of a malfunction in the rocket's fuel booster turbo pump. In August 2013, a second test flight had to be called off during countdown because of a leak in the liquid second