Monday, May 12, 2014

GSLV success: A major technology boost

Here's an analysis of India's successful GSLV launch conducted on January 05, 2014. This puts India in an exclusive club of five countries - the United States, Russia, France, Japan, and China. Given the complex nature of this technology - the use of rocket propellants at extremely low temperatures, as the ISRO Chairman Dr. Radhakrishnan remarked, "only a few in the world have mastered it."

For the full article, click here.

With the launch of GSLV-D5, India’s indigenously developed cryogenic engine upper stage technology has been proven for the first time, a major feat of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The proven technology demonstrates India’s ability to launch heavier payloads into geostationary orbit. Cryogenic technology is significant due to the thrust gained through burning every kg of propellant that is far higher in a cryogenic engine, which gives the thrust to carry heavier satellites into orbit. In the flight of GSLV-D5, the ISRO also launched a communication satellite GSAT-14 into the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The test was a make or break situation for the ISRO after two successive failures in 2010 and a mission cancelled in 2013.

India had undertaken so far seven GSLV launches, including three failures and one mission cancelled hours before the launch. Previous failures included problems such as fuel tank leakage, the mission centre losing control of the rocket with it deviating from predicted flight path, among others. Therefore, the January 5 successful launch is a matter of technology demonstration and a major boost for the Indian space community.

India’s cryogenic journey has been a long one, going back to the 1980s. In December 1982, a Cryogenic Study Team was established that studied all aspects of the technology and questions such as whether India should develop or buy the technology from outside were examined. In 1983, the team submitted a report that recommended developing the engine capable of generating about 10 tonnes of thrust indigenously as against procuring it off the shelf. In addition to the exorbitant cost to buying from elsewhere, export control mechanisms such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that denies transfer of such technologies were also contextualising factors in India’s decision. However, in 1991 after a great deal of indecision, Government of India entered into a deal with the Soviet Union for procuring two cryogenic flight stages and the technology to make them in India. The sale of such technology was seen as a violation of the MTCR commitments made by the Soviet Union and thus the deal was scrapped.

In addition to the prestige factor of being part of an exclusive club of countries that have the proven cryogenic engine technology, the GSLV-D5 launch is important from a commercial and strategic perspective. The growing satellite launch market has a huge commercial angle. So far, this market is dominated by the French and the Chinese to an extent. Given the growing number of countries entering the space domain for a variety of missions from socio-economic and development to military functions, the number of satellite launches is likely to go up significantly in the coming years. India should not lose out opportunities in this ever-growing lucrative foreign satellite launch market.

From a strategic perspective, the successful launch of the GSLV means it is self-reliant in the area of satellite launching, including heavier satellites. This also means that India will not have to depend on foreign agencies to carry their heavier payloads. Without a successfully tested indigenous cryogenic engine GSLV, many of India’s future missions would have been affected by delays. India already has a series of satellites including include GSAT-6A and 7A, two remote sensing satellites, GISATs and the GSAT series including GSAT-9 ready for launch in the near future. Chandrayaan-2 and India’s interplanetary and manned moon missions will also have a huge boost. While India has not faced any serious issue of reliability as far as foreign launchers are concerned, being self-sufficient in this area is significant in addition to having more cost-effective, cheaper options at home.

So far India has used its tried and tested Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLV) although these do have a weight limitation of just over one tonne. A PSLV can carry 1600 kg satellites in 620 km sun-synchronous polar orbit and 1050 kg satellite in geo-synchronous transfer orbit (GTO). On the other hand, a GSLV offers India the ability to launch satellites weighing 3.5-5 tonnes.

1. N. Gopal Raj, "The Long Road to Cryogenic Technology," OpEd, The Hindu, April 21, 2011,

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