GSLV Mark III: ISRO’s new launch vehicle
by Ajey Lele
|ISRO’s program remained constrained because of their inability to launch heavy satellites, weighing four to six metric tons, into a geostationary orbit.|
It was a bit of surprise for many in the world that a developing state like India is investing and experimenting in the space arena, which otherwise was considered as an exclusive domain of developed nations. However, the Indian case has demonstrated that systematic, sustained, and innovative efforts can help master rocket science. India’s successful launch of its new heavy satellite vehicle, the GSLV Mark III on June 5, should be viewed against this backdrop.
GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) is the fourth launch vehicle developed by India. India could be said to have begun its space journey during 1960s by undertaking experimentation in sounding rockets with the assistance of a few developed nations. India’s first satellite was launched by the former Soviet Union in 1975. Subsequently, India developed its own launch vehicle and launched an indigenously developed satellite during 1980. This first launch vehicle was known as SLV (Space Launch Vehicle), and this was followed by the development of Augmented Space Launch Vehicle (ASLV).
However, the Indian space program could be said to have come of age when it developed its third-generation vehicle, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which first launched in 1993. This vehicle has become the workhorse for ISRO. This vehicle has performed 37 successful missions. According to ISRO, this vehicle has launched 46 satellites for India and 180 satellites for the customers from other nations from 1994 to the present.
However, despite milestones like deploying more than 100 satellites in a single launch, undertaking missions to Moon and Mars, launching various high-resolution remote sensing satellites, and developing a reginal navigational system, ISRO’s program remained constrained because of their inability to launch heavy satellites, weighing four to six metric tons, into a geostationary orbit. The PSLV’s maximum capacity to that orbit is 2 to 2.3 tons. Therefore, despite a very successful program India has to rely on others to launch heavier geostationary satellites.
Now, with the successful launch of communication satellite called GSAT 19 (3,136 kilograms) by using the GSLV Mark III, India is fast approaching self-sufficiency for the launch of heavy satellites. This was the first developmental mission of GSLV Mk III rocket. With a few more developmental missions, ISRO is expected to fully operationalize this system.
|Cryogenic engines are part and parcel of heavy satellite launch vehicle development programs. A few decades ago, India was stopped from acquiring this technology. Even today, there are many unanswered questions about the logic of this denial.|
Essentially, this would allow India to take its space program to greater heights. From a global viewpoint, there is nothing novel regarding India’s recent achievements since Russia, the US, China, the EU, and Japan, and even a private company like SpaceXm already possess such capabilities. What is unique about India’s achievements is the indigenization of this technology.
Cryogenic engines are part and parcel of heavy satellite launch vehicle development programs. A few decades ago, India was stopped from acquiring this technology. Even today, there are many unanswered questions about the logic of this denial. It is not the purpose here to get in various details—known, inferred, and perceived—about the politics of this denial. Various available narratives in the literature, in regards this denial, cannot be assured for its correctness. However, broad themes emerge in this regard.
India was seeking cryogenic technology to develop a rocket for launching heavy satellites. India contacted Japan, the US and the erstwhile USSR (and Russia). Around 1990, a US company, General Dynamics Corporation, was in discussion with Indian counterparts for the transfer of technology. Probably, owing to cost, no progress was made.
However, the US administration took objection with ISRO inking an agreement with the Russian agency Glavkosmos for the transfer of cryogenic technology in January 1991. Russia was to sell a few cryogenic engines and offer technology transfer. But, the US blocked this move by clamming that such transfer would violate the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines. They feared that India could use this technology for development of ICBMs. While it was clear there is very little military value for such engines, the US refused to accept any rationale in this regard.
During 1994, Mr. Nambi Narayananhe, a scientist at ISRO, was charged with espionage and arrested by Indian agencies. He was spearheading ISRO’s cryogenic engine development program. Subsequently, various inquiries and court cases against him concluded that he was falsely implicated. There are various unanswered questions regarding who did it, why it was done, who benefited, and so on. Nevertheless, the final result is that, the individual suffered significantly and so did India’s cryogenic engine development program.
A landmark shift in the Indian economy took place with the adoption of a new economic policy in 1991. This economic liberalization opened various avenues and, possibly, India could have emerged as one of the important players in the heavy satellite launch market if it would have been allowed or assisted to develop a heavy satellite launch vehicle.
After 1993, under a renegotiated deal, Russia was “permitted” to sell four fully functional engines cryogenic and two mock-ups to India. Further, Russia also agreed to supply three more cryogenic engines to ISRO. However, no knowledge or even a part of technology got transferred.
|The success of this GSLV Mark III mission has begun a new era of self-reliance for ISRO.|
Unfortunately, India also took more time to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine. Globally, on average, various countries are known to have taken around eight to ten years to fully develop and master this technology. However, India took almost one and half decades. It also appears that India was very careful in the development of the GSLV Mark III, and lot of testing took place at every stage. GSLV Mark III is the first brand new vehicle developed by India in decades. For all these years, ISRO was finding great comfort with the time-tested PSLV design. During the last two decades, the agency did undertake missions ranging from a Mars orbiter to the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment, but each time depended on a PSLV or a modified PSLV system.
Before launching GSLV Mark III, ISRO has performed ten missions using the GSLV Mark 2 vehicle, from 2001 until the most recent launch on May 5. Initially, Russian-made cryogenic engines were used for these launches. On January 5, 2014, ISRO performed the first successful flight of an indigenously-developed cryogenic stage. The last four consecutive launches with this indigenously-developed cryogenic engine have been a success. Interestingly, the development of GSLV Mark 2 also harkens back to the PSLV. This is a three-stage vehicle with solid, liquid, and cryogenic stages, and it is said that the first stage is like the first stage of PSLV.
Simultaneously, ISRO has also started development of a semi-cryogenic engine too, so that future launch vehicles mainly should be a combination of semi-cryogenic and cryogenic stages.
ISRO’s scientists have toiled hard to develop the GSLV Mark III. This rocket can carry heavier four-ton communications satellite into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) or about ten tons to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It is a three-stage heavy lift launch vehicle, which has two solid strap-ons, a core liquid booster, and a cryogenic upper stage. The two strap-on motors are located on either side of its core liquid booster. The next launch of this vehicle is scheduled for the first quarter of 2018.
The success of this GSLV Mark III mission has begun a new era of self-reliance for ISRO. There is a much talk about ISRO building a strong niche for itself in the international satellite launch market, but for that purpose ISRO needs to first work towards fully operationalizing this new launch vehicle.