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ISRO Tests Its Heaviest Space Launch Vehicle
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India's space agency successfully tested on Thursday (18 December) its most powerful satellite launch vehicle that can put heavier payloads into space, and, it hopes, win India a bigger slice of the $300 billion global space industry.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) also checked the working of an unmanned crew module on the vehicle, which could give the agency the option of manned missions.
Once operational, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III will be able to put satellites weighing about 4 tonnes into orbit, almost doubling India's current capability.
Exactly 5.4 minutes after lift off at 9.30 AM from the Second Launch Pad of Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, the module separated from the rocket at an altitude of 126 km and re-entered Earth's atmosphere (about 80 km from sea level).
It descended in a ballistic mode and splashed down into the Bay of Bengal, some 180 km from Indira Point, the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The LVM3-X flight with active S200 and L110 propulsion stages and a passive C25 stage with dummy engine, carried CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment) as its payload.
Weighing over three tonnes, the 2.7-metre tall cup cake shaped crew module with a diameter of 3.1 metres, which features aluminium alloy internal structure with composite panels and ablative thermal protection systems, was made to safely drop down into the sea by specially-made parachutes from Agra-based DRDO lab Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment.
Powerful Launch Vehicle
"The powerful launch vehicle ... will change our destiny in placing various spacecraft into communication orbits," said S. Somnath, project director of the new GSLV vehicle.
But ISRO's growth has been stymied by a lack of a heavier launcher and the slow execution of missions. Between 2007 and 2012, it accomplished only about half of its planned 60 missions, government data showed.
Experts said the test of the GSLV took India a step closer to attracting more foreign business which would help Asia's third-largest economy emerge as a stronger player in the global space race.
The experiment on Thursday also helped ISRO test the vehicle's atmospheric stability and its design. It was powered by two engines while a third is under development.
"We still need to put a heavier third engine to ensure this vehicle can be used successfully for manned missions and heavier satellite launches," said Mayank Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
In September, India's Mars Orbiter Mission entered the red planet's orbit, making India the first Asian nation to reach Mars on its first attempt. The mission was lauded for its shoestring budget of about $74 million.
Thursday's experiment also witnessed the largest parachute in action ever made in the country. The main parachute, which helped the crew module touch the waters at around 7 metre/second speed, was 31 metres in diameter.
"This was a very significant day in the history of Indian space programme for the development of the advanced launch vehicle that could carry a 4-tonne class of communication satellite into orbit," ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan said.
The crew module, which can carry up to two to three astronauts, withstood a heat of around 1,600 degree Celsius, while it travelled towards the surface of the earth attracted by gravity.
The module would be tracked by Indian Coast Guard ships and then taken to Kamarajar Port in Ennore near Chennai, from where it would be shited to Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala for further study.
This experimental mission has helped ISRO with two primary lessons -- to study the flight validation of the complex atmospheric flight regime of LVM3 vehicle and study the re-entry characteristics of CARE crew module.
"India started the development process a decade ago and just now we completed the first experimental flight of the GSLV Mark III vehicle christened as LVM Mark III," Radhakrishnan said from the Mission Control Centre.
Performance As Expected
"The performance of the two solid stages S200 as well as the liquid core stage L110 was as expected," he said.
"We also had another experimental module in this mission that is the unmanned crew module test to understand the re-entry characteristics. That also worked extremely well and the crew module has splashed down as expected in Bay of Bengal," he said.
Radhakrishnan thanked the entire team for making the project possible and added "with the completion of the development of the high thrust cryogenic engine which has progressed very well, we expect to come back with a developmental flight of this vehicle LVM-3 in another two years."
This is the first time ISRO was carrying a payload weighing over three tonne. The national space agency's first space recovery experiment (SRE-1) module, launched by a PSLV rocket in January 2007, weighed only 555 kg and that too was not a crew module.
Though it would take at least 10 years for India to send humans into space, this experiment has helped the space agency to test the module for safe return of humans from space, according to ISRO.
While the heavy duty cryogenic engine is still under development in one of the ISRO labs at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu, Thursday's attempt was to primarily study the atmospheric performance of GSLV Mk III in the first two stages.
The CARE module is expected to enhance ISRO's understanding on re-entry and parachute phases of crew module.
The total budget of the experimental mission was Rs 155 crore, including the crew module, which cost Rs 15 crore.