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LVM3 launch
The first GSLV Mark III rocket, also known as LVM3, performed a successful suborbital test flight last December. (credit: ISRO)

India’s GSLV Mark III: Another step ahead

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The initial phases of India’s space ambitions suffered a setback due to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the US interference in Russia’s transfer of cryogenic engines to India, which restricted India’s access to the former Soviet Union’s cryogenic engine technology. However, India managed to procure a cryogenic third stage from Russia that was used in the GSLV-D1 set for 2001. However, the GSLV suffered technical problems, as the Russian-made cryogenic engine fired for a shorter time than expected. The GSLV Mark I experienced mixed performance. While the I(a) configuration was a success, the I(b) proved a failure. The GSLV-D3 also suffered a failure in 2010.

However, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has since then demonstrated its ability to launch lighter satellites into space successfully. Not only this, ISRO also set up its own marketing arm, the Antrix Corporation Limited, for the “promotion and commercial exploitation” of space. Successful flights of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) led India to use its PSLV capability as a multi-satellite launch system for launching the satellites of foreign countries. In June 2014, the PSLV-C23, just like the C20 that launched foreign satellites in 2013, launched satellites for several nations.

It would make little sense for New Delhi to develop an ICBM capability based on a cryogenic engine when India has already progressed with long-range missiles using solid propulsion technology.

However, India continued to lag behind other nations in launching heavier satellites. The year 2014 started on a positive note for ISRO when it a performed a successful launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)-D5 equipped with an indigenous cryogenic engine, a technology delayed by two decades. Despite the progress made, India still lacked the capability of sending heavier satellites into space since the GSLV-D5 was not yet powerful enough to launch larger satellites.

This technology raised many concerns over India’s space capability being used for building intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). However, it would make little sense for New Delhi to develop an ICBM capability based on a cryogenic engine when India has already progressed with long-range missiles, some with a range of 5,000 kilometers, using solid propulsion technology. As New Delhi seeks survivable and mobile missile systems, any long-range missile system equipped with cryogenic engine would result in a heavier missile system likely incapable of swift mobility. Moreover, with a “no first use” nuclear doctrine, using a cryogenic engine for a long-range missile capability becomes a cumbersome task due to the operational hazards of working with propellants stored at extremely low temperatures.

Last year ended also on a positive note for ISRO scientists when they successfully tested their third-generation, three-stage rocket, the GSLV Mark III, also known as the LVM-3. It is capable of launching heavier satellites, weighing up to four tonnes, to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and placing ten tons of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO). The 2014 test provided a flight validation of the launch vehicle and the telemetric system. The LVM-3 also tested the atmospheric re-entry pattern and a passive test of the cryogenic engine. This GSLV technology would put an end to India’s reliance on foreign satellite launch vehicles to send heavier satellites into space.

Further, just like the PSLV, the GSLV could also be used for commercial applications, that is, to launch heavier satellites of foreign countries. In March 2015, to provide additional credibility to its GSLV program, ISRO conducted successful hot-fire testing of the cryogenic engine, CE-20. The engine has already undergone a “cold test” in October 2014. This engine is heavier than the engine used in the GSLV-D5, the CE-7.5 engine. Successful testing of the cryogenic engines, be it the CE-20 or the CE-7.5, is crucial to the success of the GSLV, particularly the new Mark III.

The GSLV Mark III can be capable of carrying heavier satellites like the INSAT-4. ISRO plans its next GSLV Mark III launch in 2017, carrying the GSAT-19E communications satellite, a spacecraft that previously might have required a launch on a foreign vehicle. India is clearly progressing in its ability to launch heavier satellites into space.