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India cracks cryogenic jinx as GSLV takes off

A rocket propelled by a powerful indigenous engine took off smoothly carrying a communication satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sunday, adding another feather to Indian Space Research Organisation’s cap. After launch, what the success means

india Updated: Jan 06, 2014 07:58 IST
KV Lakshmana
KV Lakshmana
Hindustan Times

A rocket propelled by a powerful indigenous engine took off smoothly carrying a communication satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sunday, adding another feather in Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) cap after the successful launch of the country’s first Mars probe in November last year.

Precisely at 4.18pm, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle - Development 5 (GSLV-D5) lifted off smoothly, streaking up in the clear blue skies with a thunderous noise and curving along its pre-determined path.

As the made-in-India cryogenic engine fired for twelve nerve-racking minutes and placed the 1,982kg GSAT-14 communication satellite in its orbit, scientists erupted in joy. The satellite will augment capacity of C and Ku-band transmitters.

Vice-president Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bharatiya Janata Party’s PM nominee Narendra Modi hailed the successful launch of the 414.75-tonne heavy and 49.13-metre-tall rocket powered by an indigenous engine.

What’s more, the Isro has finally cracked the cryogenic puzzle. Until the launch, India was taking the help of French rockets to place its communication satellites in orbit. But now, the Isro is the sixth space agency in the world after the US, Russia, Japan, China and France to have tasted success with an indigenous cryogenic engine.

India successfully launched rejuvenated indigenous cryogenic engine- fitted GSLV-D5 carrying communication satellite GSAT-14 at Sriharikota in Andra Pradesh. (PTI)

Last August, the launch of a GSLV rocket powered by an Indian cryogenic engine was called off a few minutes before scheduled time after a fuel leak was detected. In 2010, another GSLV rocket powered by a Russian cryogenic engine burst into flames just 63 seconds after liftoff.

Scientists at Sriharikota, some 80km from Chennai, were upbeat over the success of the indigenous cryogenic engine, which was in the making for over two decades and required an investment of around Rs 400 crore.

Now, India can save crores of foreign exchange, which the country used to spend as launching fees for satellites. Isro puts its heavy communication satellites into space by hiring services of European space agency Ariane. At a rough count, launch fee per satellite worked out to Rs 500 crore.

Isro chairperson K Radhakrishnan said the Indian cryogenic engine performed as predicted.

"ISRO has done it. The Indian cryogenic engine performed as predicted and expected. We are extremely proud after three-and-a-half years of time we took to learn from our failures."

He added later, "Today is an important day. India has a working cryogenic engine. GSLV can do its job as designed. We are now going for a series of GSLV vehicles to launch GSAT 6, GSAT 7, Chandrayan II and few more communication satellites of two-tonne class. We are also developing GSAT III which can take in more weights."

In another glorious chapter in India’s space odyssey, the Isro in November 2013 had launched the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft, which is India's first interplanetary spacecraft, from Sriharikota.

Only the US, Europe, and Russia have sent probes that have orbited or landed on Mars. Probes to the red planet have a high failure rate and a success will be a boost for national pride, especially after a similar mission by China failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.

Sunday’s launch is India’s eighth flight of GSLV and also its fourth developmental flight. During this flight, the indigenously developed Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS) was flight-tested for the second time.

GSAT-14 is India’s 23rd geostationary communication satellite, as four of GSAT-14’s predecessors were launched by GSLV in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007.

Isro's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle with an indigenous cryogenic engine carrying GSAT-14 communication satellite lifts off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. (AP)

Why cryogenic matters

A cryogenic rocket stage is more efficient and provides more thrust for every kilogram of propellant it burns compared with solid and earth-storable liquid propellant rocket stages.

Specific impulse (a measure of the efficiency) achievable with cryogenic propellants (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) is much higher compared with earth storable liquid and solid propellants, giving it a substantial payload advantage.

However, cryogenic stage is technically a very complex system compared with solid or earth-storable liquid propellant stages due to its use of propellants at extremely low temperatures and the associated thermal and structural problems. Oxygen liquefies at –183 degrees Celsius and hydrogen at –253 deg C.

The propellants, at these low temperatures, are to be pumped using turbo pumps running at around 40,000 rpm. It also entails complex ground support systems like propellant storage and filling systems, cryo engine and stage test facilities, transportation and handling of cryo fluids and related safety aspects. Cryogenic engines are used at the last stage to launch heavy communication satellites.

India successfully launched rejuvenated indigenous cryogenic engine- fitted GSLV-D5 at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on Sunday. (PTI)

Isro chairperson K Radhakrishnan speaks

We have seen the outcome of the mission. GSLV-D5 with Indian cryogenic engine did its job extremely well. The mission was to flight-test Indian cryogenic engine, it functioned as expected and required for the mission.

It is a very important step for the country. In April 2010 we had a problem. Efforts put in to diagnose the problem and test and bring a flight stage ready for the flight was a major activity. The initiation of cryogenic engine has a background and it is needed to give the rockets the thrust needed to place the satellites in orbit.

There are not many in the world who have mastered this technology of cryogenic engine, India is one of them. Isro put its best efforts. Out of seven GSLV launches, four were successful and three failures. We had the first successful flight of indigenous cryogenic engine. With just one more flight we can achieve reliability. I feel it will be possible to launch satellites of foreign countries.

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