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With successful GSLV-D5 launch, India breaks into an elite space club

N. Madhavan     January 5, 2014
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on Sunday successfully launched a geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle --GSLV-D5 -- which used an indigenous cryogenic engine, putting behind it years of pain and failures. The launch vehicle lifted off from India's space port at Sriharikota precisely at 4.18 pm on a clear blue sky and delivered a copy book launch.

The GSLV-D5 injected the GSAT-14, a 1,980 kg satellite, at its precise orbit 17 minutes into the flight. It took ISRO more than 13 years to achieve this success after its first GSLV flight in 2001. ISRO kickstarted the cryogenic project almost 20 years ago.

"Today is an important day for space technology in the country. The Indian cryogenic stage performed as expected and injected the satellite to the intended orbit," said an elated K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO, immediately after the successful launch. "Our toiling of 20 years and excruciating efforts in the last three-and-a-half years have borne fruit."

What has excited the ISRO team is the precision of the launch. According to K. Sivan, Mission Director, GSLV-D5, the satellite was injected by the launch vehicle within 40 metres of its intended orbit in perigee (closest point of the satellite to earth). "The 1,000 seconds of the GSLV- D5 flight is a fruit of 1,000 days of hard work," he said.

This success comes within four-and-a-half months of an earlier attempt that ISRO had aborted owing to a fuel leak in the liquid second stage. That incident and the previous failures had raised questions about ISRO's ability to master the advanced cryogenic technology, which till recently rested with a select countries/regions such as the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and China.

This success takes ISRO closer to its objective of positioning itself as a reliable launcher of heavier communication satellites that weigh over two tonnes in the geosynchronous orbit (an orbit where a satellite moves in tandem with the earth's rotation and thus is available to users throughout the day). A few more successful launches will establish this reliability and ISRO could soon be competing with US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency for a pie of a multi-billion dollar market.

ISRO has come a long way from the late 1990s when it acquired seven Russian-built cryogenic engines for kick-starting its GSLV programme. Further sale of cryogenic engines was stopped after the US objected to it on the grounds that such a transaction violated a missile control treaty. ISRO then started to indigenise its technology and today after many delays and frustrating failures it has finally tasted success. With a distinct cost advantage estimated to be around 25 per cent, ISRO is expected to get a large share of the market. For that it will have to next establish the reliability of the GSLV as a launch vehicle by doing more such precision launches.

ISRO has already established its reliability when it comes to launching smaller satellites using its smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Its workhorse launch vehicle has already put over 35 foreign satellites of various countries weighing between one kg and 712 kg in orbit, not to mention more than a dozen Indian satellites.

The GSLV's success is also critical for ISRO to move to the next stage in space exploration. Its plan to land a spacecraft on the moon and launch a manned space flight hinged on the success of the GSLV and cryogenic technology.

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