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GSLV launch
The launch of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Sunday, the first successful flight of the vehicle using an indigenously-developed cryogenic upper stage. (credit: ISRO)

GSLV-D5 success: A major “booster” to India’s space program


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Space and politics have always been interlinked. Activities in the various areas of space technologies have mostly a political context as a backdrop. On January 5, 2014, India successfully launched GSLV-D5 mission. The significant achievement of this mission is the success achieved in respect to the indigenous development of cryogenic technology. This accomplishment should actually have taken place two decades ago. One of the major reasons for such an inordinate delay has been the power politics resulting in the denial of technology to India during early 1990s.

The significant achievement of this mission is the success achieved in respect to the indigenous development of cryogenic technology. This accomplishment should actually have taken place two decades ago.

However, it may not be correct to play the so-called “victimization” card to justify this delay in India’s ability to launch heavy satellites—a minimum of two to four tonnes—to geostationary orbits. The reality is that India did take more than a decade to achieve success with its indigenous Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program. Such delay looked “repugnant” to many in comparison to the success India’s space program has achieved otherwise, be it the development of the biggest remote sensing satellite network in the world to gaining success with its Moon and Mars missions. The cause of such delay was likely because of neither money nor leadership; rather, the challenges were purely technological in nature.

In general, most of India’s space program is of indigenous origin due to the global technology denial regime. The US and European nuclear phobia was one of the major reasons why India’s space program took this much time to advance.

India conducted its first nuclear test on May 18, 1974. This provoked the major world powers to put India under the sanctions regime, and with this began the phase of India’s technological apartheid. India was denied technological assistance not only in nuclear sector but in other sectors as well. During early late 1980s and 1990s India was keen to develop the GSLV for the launch of satellites to geostationary orbit (36,000 km above the Equator.) To undertake such a launch, India needed to develop cryogenic engine technology. India was likely to get the technological knowhow from Russia. However, the US pressured Russia against transferring the required technology to India.

During 1991, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had entered into an agreement with the then-Soviet space agency Glavkosmos towards the supply of cryogenic engines (KVD-1) along with the transfer of technology provisions. But this arrangement could not advance to its logical conclusion. The US put pressure on Glavkosmos by blacklisting it and Russian president Boris Yelstin told Glavkosmos to renegotiate the deal with India. Finally, only a limited number of sales of KVD-1 engines were permitted, with no technology transfer arrangements. All this happened because the US authorities believed that any technological transfer in this field would eventually be diverted towards a ballistic missile development program for delivering a nuclear weapon. The US was of the opinion that such transfer technology could eventually lead India developing missiles which are able to carry a payload of 500 kilograms to a distance of 300 kilometers or more, a violation of Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, guidelines. Unfortunately, it was not appreciated that India’s missile program and space program are entirely two different programs, and space was a typical civilian program. Incidentally, by 1996 India had tested its own surface-to-surface Prithvi II short range ballistic missile (SRBM) with a capacity of 500 kilograms payload and a range of approximately 250–350 kilometers.

India started its GSLV program in two phases. In the first, the rocket was developed using the Russian cryogenic engine, while simultaneously ISRO started the process of indigenous development of a cryogenic engine. The Indian philosophy was that since only the sale of six engines was permitted, by the time these imported engines were used in various missions, the Indian version of this engine should become ready. However, soon India realized that the cryogenic engine was not the only technological challenge for the GSLV. The rocket’s design is such that the mission has three states: solid, liquid and cryogenic, and on a few occasions India faced problems in non-cryogenic stages as well.

The recent GSLV success is extremely crucial and should be a great morale booster for ISRO’s future plans.

Since 2001, India has attempted several GSLV launches with a mix bag of success. Out of the seven launches before Sunday’s successful launch, only two were totally successful and one was partially successful. Moreover, a previous attempt of the latest GSLV mission, on August 19, 2013, was called off just 75 minutes before the actual launch because a fuel leak was detected in the second state of the rocket. Among these seven launches only one was with the ISRO-designed and -built cryogenic engine (April 15, 2010) and that was a failure. At the time of that failure, it was projected that ISRO would launch again within a year. However, it took more than three years to rectify the errors from the earlier launch.

Given this backdrop, the recent GSLV success is extremely crucial and should be a great morale booster for ISRO’s future plans. Overall, the success of GSLV-D5 has been the culmination of a very demanding journey. For last few years ISRO has been trying very hard to successfully develop the cryogenic technology. During last three years ISRO made some modifications in the engine design and performed several ground tests to confirm its performance. There were problems with the production of the special alloys and high-speed turbines required for cryogenic fuels. The key challenges included development of composite thermal insulation, fabrication techniques, and handling of fluids at cryogenic temperatures.

The April 2010 failure was attributed to the anomalous shutdown of the upper stage’s Fuel Booster Turbo Pump (FBTP), which now has been modified. ISRO had done nearly 35 ground tests since that failure, on both subsystems and the full engine in varying conditions, before planning August 2013 launch. Still, these efforts proved to be inadequate. After the scrub of the August launch attempt, engineers found that the fuel tank, made of aluminum alloy called Afnor 702, had developed cracks. This time a new aluminum alloy, 2219, was used. ISRO also carried out other modifications in the rocket system. Also, ISRO successfully tested the engine for the full flight duration of 720 seconds at their liquid propulsion test facility.

Now, it is important for ISRO to build on this success quickly and move ahead, as India has lost almost two decades of launch vehicle development. According to the proposed roadmap, ISRO plans to undertake more than 50 missions and is proposing to deploy 500 satellite communications transponders in the next five years. This success of GSLV indicates that ISRO can dream of making fast progress in the next few years with some its much delayed projects, like a second Moon mission.

For many years India was dependent on others, particularly Arianespace, for the launch of communication satellites. A significant amount of foreign exchange was being spent for these reasons. Now, India can be in a position not only to launch its own large satellites on its own but could also offer launching services on commercial terms. In addition, the GSLV can also support India’s plans for future Moon and Mars missions.

If all goes well in the future, ISRO will be in position to offer a low-cost launch option for launching heavy satellites and could be stiff competition for many other global commercial satellite launch companies.

This GSLV-D5 mission placed into orbit the GSAT-14 satellite, equipped with 6 Ku- and 6 extended C-band transponders which would augment the in orbit capacity of the transponders. The satellite also carries two Ka-band beacons, which will be used to study the impact of climate on Ka-band satellite communication links in the region. The satellite has C-band transponders on board to enhance the broadcasting services in India. GSAT-14, the 23rd communications satellite built by ISO, joins the group of India’s nine operational geostationary satellites. It is expected to support tele-education and tele-medicine applications.

Recent studies have predicted that India and China will play a major role in the space market by influencing global launch and satellite prices. Success with GSLV-D5 announces India’s arrival in the global heavy-lift launch market. It would be premature to predict the future with just one successful launch. However, if all goes well in the future, ISRO will be in position to offer a low-cost launch option for launching heavy satellites and could be stiff competition for many other global commercial satellite launch companies.


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