Historic Endeavour!

ISRO recorded another major success when the GSLV Mk III, the heaviest launch vehicle produced by ISRO, blasted off on its first operational mission from the Space Centre in Sriharikota.

Issue: 6 / 2017By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By ISRO
ISRO launched GSLV Mk III from the Space Centre, Sriharikota

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scripted history when on February 15 this year, the Indian space agency successfully launched 104 satellites in a single mission, setting what it says is a world record of launching the highest number of satellites. The record thus far had been held by Russia that in June 2014 had launched 39 satellites in one mission.

Another Landmark Achievement

ISRO recorded another major success on June 5 this year when the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) Mk III, the heaviest launch vehicle produced by ISRO so far, blasted off on its very first operational mission from the second launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, located in Andhra Pradesh. The launch vehicle was carrying the GSAT 19, a communication satellite weighing 3,136 kg and in just 16 minutes after liftoff and on attaining an altitude of 179 km from the surface of the Earth, the GSLV Mk III successfully inserted the communication satellite into its planned geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

In the next few days, the orbit of the GSAT 19 will be raised from the GTO to the final circular geostationary orbit (GSO) by firing the satellite’s liquid apogee motor in stages. Once positioned in GSO, the solar panels and antenna reflectors of the satellite will be deployed and its in-orbit testing of payloads will be completed after which the satellite will be declared operational.

The GSLV Mk-II

The project to develop the GSLV Mk III, a three-stage, heavylift launch vehicle, was initiated in 2002. Much of the time was spent painstakingly developing an indigenous cryogenic engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as propellants. The vehicle has two solid strap-on motors, a core liquid-fuelled booster and a high thrust cryogenic upper stage, the first Indian rocket to be equipped with this engine. Incidentally, the cryogenic engine that alone weighs 25 tonnes, has been developed indigenously by ISRO and today, India can boast of being one of the six nations in the world to possess this technology. The maiden suborbital test flight of the GSLV was successfully conducted on December 18, 2014. On this mission that was primarily aimed at testing its structural stability and aerodynamics, the rocket had carried a payload of 3.7 tonnes.

SUCCESS OF THE GSLV MK III IS CLEAR EVIDENCE THAT INDIA HAS MASTERED THE TECHNOLOGIES THAT HAS LITERALLY PROPELLED THE NATION INTO THE ELITE GROUP OF SPACE FARING COUNTRIES

However, on this mission, the third stage of the rocket was not powered by a cryogenic engine as it was not yet fully developed. The GSLV Mk III that has been developed at a cost of Rs 300 crore and that has earned the sobriquet of ‘Bahubali’, incorporates several advanced spacecraft technologies in the areas of solid, liquid and cryogenic rocket propulsion.

It is regarded by ISRO as “India’s rocket of the future that will carry Indian astronauts into space.” A notable feature of the project is that the GSLV Mk III has largely indigenous components with minimal dependence on imported components. In terms of size, the rocket is 43 metres tall which is as high as a 13-storey building and weighs 640 tonnes which is as much as five fully loaded jumbo jet airliners or 200 Asian elephants.

The GSLV Mk III is slightly shorter than the Mk II version which is around 49 metres tall, but is more powerful. It is designed to carry payloads up to 4,000 kg which is twice the capability of the GSLV Mk II and place it into GTO or about ten tonnes into low earth orbit (LEO).

Manned Space Flight

The GSLV Mk III is a technological marvel and is indeed a game changer. It also represents a quantum leap in the capability of ISRO related to the production of satellite launch vehicles. Success of the GSLV Mk III is clear evidence that India has mastered the technologies that has literally propelled the nation into the elite group of space faring countries.

ISRO is now looking at a project to graduate into the regime of manned space flights in a time frame of seven years. For this effort, the organisation has sought funding from the government to the tune of Rs. 12,000 crore. If ISRO is successful in sending a human being into space and affect a successful recovery, India would then be the fourth nation after Russia, the United States and China to have a successful human space flight programme. ISRO is even contemplating to send a woman on the maiden flight into space which in itself will be a historical feat!

The Commercial Angle

This latest mission of the successful launch of the GSLV Mk III by ISRO is not only an unprecedented technological success, it is significant from the commercial point of view as well. This success will help ISRO garner a greater share of the $300-million global commercial satellite launch market as well as earn foreign exchange for the nation. With a payload capacity of 1.5 tonnes, the highly reliable workhorse, the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) has recorded 39 successful launches so far. Also, with the GSLV Mk II with a liftoff mass of 415 tonnes and a payload capacity of 2.3 tonnes and now the GSLV Mk III capable of lifting four tonnes, ISRO is no longer dependent on foreign space powers to launch satellites for the nation.

In fact, in the mission in February this year, of the 104 satellites atop the GSLV Mk II, 101 were from international customers. The other major advantage ISRO enjoys is that its missions are undertaken at relatively lower cost as compared to the other major space faring nations of the world. For example, a mission by ISRO that involved placing a satellite in an orbit around Mars cost just $67 million as compared with NASA’s Maven Mars mission that carried a price tag of $671 million. ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix levies a charge of about $3 million to launch a satellite into space in recent years, far less than other space agencies.

As the revenue from satellite launch missions is directly proportional to the weight of the satellite or satellites launched, the GSLV Mk III will certainly generate rich dividends through higher revenue.

The Future

The success of this maiden launch is particularly significant as ISRO has been plagued in the past with a number of failures in maiden launches in 1979, 1993 and 2001. It is heartening to note that scientists at ISRO have learnt lessons from the failures in the past, have overcome the innumerable hurdles both technological and bureaucratic despite being handicapped on account of no assistance from abroad. However, even when confronted with all these impediments, today ISRO is undoubtedly better prepared to take on the challenges in the future.

While there may be good reason for ISRO to celebrate at the successes particularly in the recent past, the Indian space agency cannot afford to rest on its laurels as there are challenges ahead that the organisation would have to encounter. Currently, while ISRO has developed the capability to handle communication satellites weighing up to four tonnes, the global trend appears to be that the weight of communication satellites is going up progressively. There is now a requirement of developing the capability to launch communication satellites weighting around six tonnes or even more in the times to come. It is quite obvious that ISRO has even higher mountains to scale on the road ahead.