Posted on behalf of Sanjay Kumar.
With the successful liftoff of a Geo-Synchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) D 5 yesterday, India became the sixth nation to possess cryogenic propulsion rocket technology. The 415-tonne rocket successfully injected a 2-tonne communications satellite into the intended geosynchronous orbit, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has announced.
Cryogenic engines burn liquid oxygen and hydrogen, which liquefy at ‒183 °C and ‒253 °C respectively, and provide more thrust per kilogram of propellant, compared to room-temperature liquid fuels such as hydrazine or to solid fuels. The only countries that had the technology so far were the US, Russia, France, Japan and China.
Cryogenic technology is required for putting heavy payloads into orbit, and its lack had been ISRO’s proverbial Achilles’ heel for more than two decades, denting its capabilities.
In January 1991 India signed an agreement with the erstwhile Soviet Union to acquire cryogenic engines and also transfer technology. With the break-up of the Soviet Union later that year, and under pressure from the US, which alleged the sale would violate the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Russian government reneged on it promise of technology transfer while agreeing to provide seven cryogenic engines.
India was then forced to develop its own cryogenic technology, but its journey has been quite turbulent.
Since its first experimental launch in 2001, the GSLV has faced four failures in seven launches. In April 2010, a GSLV fitted with an indigenously built cryogenic upper stage and carrying an experimental communications satellite went off course and fell into the Indian Ocean. In August 2013, a scheduled launch was abruptly cancelled just few hours before lift-off, when a leak was detected in the hydrazine fuel system of the rocket’s second stage.
India’s cryogenic technology programme also took center stage in a high-profile scandal when leading scientists S. Nambi Narayan and D. Sasikumaran were arrested in 1994 on espionage charges. Nambi Narayan was later exonerated.
With GSLV D5’s success, India will now be able to launch its heavy satellites at a fraction of the price other space agencies charge for launches. The technology will also come handy for the country’s lunar mission Chandrayaan-2, as well as for future manned space flights.