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GSLV-F10 launch
A GSLV Mark II rocket lifts off August 12, only to suffer a mission-ending malfunction of its cryogenic upper stage five minutes into the flight. (credit: ISRO)

ISRO’s cryogenic conundrum

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On August 12, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) GSLV-F10 mission failed. This GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) was a three-stage rocket carrying the EOS-03 (GISAT-1) Earth observation satellite. The mission took off correctly and the performance of first and second stages was normal. However, ignition of the Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS) did not happen due to a technical anomaly, resulting in a disastrous failure.

The only consolation to ISRO was the performance of the vehicle’s new payload fairing. This was the first time ISRO was testing this improved fairing with a four-meter ogive (bullet-like) shape. The same payload fairing is probably meant to be used for the forthcoming human spaceflight program, too.

Today, the major limitation of ISRO is that the reliability of the GSLV continuous to remain questionable.

The last failure by ISRO was in August 2017. Interestingly, this failure was associated with the payload fairing. A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) failed to deliver India's eighth navigation satellite (IRNSS-1H) into its intended orbit with the payload fairing failed to separate, something not seen on previous launches. ISRO scientists were perplexed at the fiasco.

However, the same could not be said about the loss of GSLV-F10. This is mainly because ISRO has always been on tenterhooks in regards to the performance of its indigenously developed cryogenic engine (see “Is ISRO’s ‘cryogenic curse’ finally over?”, The Space Review, July 22, 2019). The exact reason for this failure will only be known after ISRO finishes its inquiry.

For GSLV-F10, the third cryogenic stage was known as GS3 (CUS-15) and the CE 7.5 engine is part of that stage. ISRO has earlier undertaken a few successful launches with the same engine and, thus, it’s possible there could be some minor glitch that caused this failure that can be fixed without having to go back to the drawing board. Launch failures are part and parcel of the space game and this failure should also be viewed with the same understanding. ISRO’s success rate is commendable, but it needs to avoid getting into any form of self-complacency.

Much was at stake with this launch for ISRO and much has been lost. Various important and praiseworthy successes that ISRO achieved for all these years is mainly because of their most trusted satellite launch vehicle, the PSLV. After its first successful launch in October 1994, this vehicle has now performed 53 launches, including missions to the Moon and Mars. In the 27-year journey of PSLV, there have been only two failures and one partial failure.

Today, the major limitation of ISRO is that the reliability of the GSLV continuous to remain questionable. ISRO uses two types of vehicles with cryogenic engines, the GSLV Mk II and GSLV Mk III. With GSLV Mk II they have undertaken 14 missions with four failures, which includes GSLV-F10. Only one operational flight of GSLV Mk III has taken place (after two demonstration missions), which was a success.

GSLV Mk II can carry maximum of 2,500 kilograms to GTO (5,000 kilograms to LEO) and GSLV Mk III can carry 4,000 kilograms payload to GTO (8,000 kilograms to LEO). However, communications and weather satellites typically weigh five to six tons. This indicates that in spite of India becoming a spacefaring nation back in 1980, still it is not in a position to carry heavy satellites to geostationary orbit. A reliable heavy satellite launch vehicle is a must for India to undertake human space missions, missions for creating a future space station, and for future planetary missions. For decades, India has depended on Arianespace for launching its commutations satellites. To overcome this dependence, ISRO has long worked on a cryogenic engine and now is also developing a semi-cryogenic engine. However, this process is taking a long time and has already started adversely impacting ISRO’s space agenda.

India is just nowhere near to the capabilities of NASA, ESA, Russia, and China and even that of companies like SpaceX. ISRO needs to prioritize its agenda.

EOS-03 was a 2,268-kilogram state-of-the-art agile Earth observation satellite. India previously launched two disaster management satellites called INSAT-3D in July 2013 and INSAT-3DR in September 2016. EOS-03 could have lasted for ten years, providing near real-time images of India. It was a multipurpose satellite meant for varying purposes. Basically, it was to collect data on routine basis, which would have helped agencies dealing with agriculture, water bodies, and forestry. Also, if needed, it could have given near-real time inputs to manage natural disasters. Continuous monitoring of crop health could have assisted the agricultural sector in a big way. ISRO was proposing to launch EOS-05 (GSAT-2) as a followup mission. These satellites were to provide images of the Indian landmass at regular intervals. The loss of EOS-03 will also have negative impact on India’s strategic preparedness.

This satellite had six-band multispectral visible and near infrared payload imaging sensors with 42-meter resolution; 158-band hyperspectral visible and near infrared payload imaging sensors with 318-meter resolution, and 256-band hyperspectral shortwave infrared sensors with 191-meter resolution. Many expected that this satellite could have assisted India’s security establishment significantly. ISRO had planned to launch this satellite in 2018, yet owing to technical issues this launch was continuously getting postponed.

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted ISRO more than any other major space agency. In 2020, US launch providers flew 44 missions with 40 successes. China flew 39 missions with four failures, while Russia had 17 successful launches without any failures. By comparison, India launched two successful missions in as many attempts. So far this year, the US and China have managed around 30 launches each. In February, India had performed one commercial mission successfully (PSLV-C51 carrying Amazonia-1 and 18 other satellites), however their recent GSLV-F10 mission was a failure.

Almost 70 to 80 percent of ISRO’s launch vehicle and satellite system manufacturing is performed by India’s private industry. However, frequent lockdowns caused by the pandemic has adversely impacted the functioning of various Indian private agencies undertaking these tasks. This is one of the reasons for the diminished ISRO launch schedule. Overall, it appears that ISRO has struggled to establish an effective alternative system to overcome COVID-19 challenges and continue with its launch schedule.

In 2020, countries like the US and China had also witnessed few failures. So, failures are a part of a game. But, when the agency like ISRO conducts only one or two missions in a year, as in 2020 and 2021, and if one of them also fails, then there should be more concerns. Is ISRO spreading itself too thin? Are they planning too many programs? The heart of any space program is a launch vehicle. If ISRO has to grow, then first they need to have a reliable heavy satellite launch vehicle in place; the rest can wait. Has the time come for ISRO to concentrate a major portion of its resources (including personnel) towards developing cryogenic and semi-cryogenic technology first? For years ISRO has done exceptionally well in some domains and have put major infrastructure in place. ISRO could be a “tiger of low Earth orbit,” but is that sufficient? Where do they stand in comparison with the best in the world? Today, India is just nowhere near to the capabilities of NASA, ESA, Russia, and China and even that of companies like SpaceX. ISRO needs to prioritize its agenda. The GSLV-F10 failure should be cause for introspection.

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