India’s GSL Rocket Launch Didn’t Quite Go as Planned

Many countries in the developed world have continued to make progress with their space programs as they look to gather momentum towards building a presence in space.

India’s GSL Rocket Launch Didn’t Quite Go as Planned
GSLV Mk III D2 /GSAT-29 on Second Launch Pad of Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota (SDSC SHAR)

With the United States and China seemingly leading the way, several others have made significant progress.

Technical Difficulties Strike Again

India recently suffered a significant setback with a recent Earth-observing satellite, marking a major problem for the country. In August, the satellite - launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) - had a massive failure just a few minutes after launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island.

The launch failure had been the first for the ISRO in four years. It occurred about six minutes after the mission had launched. Its rocket - the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) - had been expected to ignite its cryogenic third stage. Sadly, this ignition never happened.

In an update shared on social media, ISRO officials claimed that the mission had cycled through normal performances for its first and second stages. However, a technical anomaly caused the Cryogenic Upper Stage ignition to be delayed. Thus, the mission couldn’t go forward as intended. ISRO chairman K. Sivan added that they will be looking into the mission’s specifications to check what can be fixed and the other adjustments that need to be made.

The ISRO suffered more than just a rocket mishap. Lost in the entire debacle was its EOX-03 Earth observation satellite, which was designed to be a channel through which the ISRO would have been able to study the planet. The satellite was built to last at least a decade, offering near-instant images and angles of India and its environs. The ISRO had looked to use the satellite to track natural disasters and other events, collecting data on agricultural developments.

As expected, this launch failure was a significant blow. It broke a streak of successful launches for the ISRO, which stood at 14 launches. The organization had successfully launched satellites since 2017, following the failure of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

The ISRO currently holds a significant backlog of launches that were supposed to happen last year. But, the coronavirus pandemic drew its plans back. Four launches that were supposed to launch this year - including a test flight for the organization’s crewed spaceflight mission - will most likely be put on hold as the ISRO investigates the cause for August’s mission failure.

The failure also dealt a blow to the ISRO’s hopes of human spaceflight. The Indian government has seen several other nations make progress with human spaceflight, with companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin completing crewed flights. For a while, it has looked to join the ranks of countries taking humans into space.

A report from the Times of India shows that India’s human spaceflight program - called Gaganyaaan - is looking to conduct its first unmanned mission to space later this year. Eventually, the objective is to send humans to low Earth orbit between 2022 and 2023. But, that will depend significantly on its ability to get this year’s mission right. With the recent launch ending in an unfortunate way, optimism isn’t exactly high right now.

Still Some Developments to Anticipate

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all hope is lost. In July, the ISRO conducted a long-duration hot test for its Vital Engine liquid propellant system. This will be used on the organization’s human-rated GSLC MKII vehicle, which will be an important part of the crewed spaceflight endeavor.

At the same time, the ISRO is looking to experiment with vertical landing for its rockets. Reports suggest that the agency may explore this functionality for its GSLV MK III heavy-lift rocket. The rocket is powered by solid, liquid, and cryogenic fuel engines, and the ISRO will hope to recover the first two rocket stages of the GSLV MK III.

Currently, all of the ISRO’s rockets are expendable. So, each rocket stage separates from the vehicle after its burn time. The ISRO will need to recover the rocket's stages from land or sea and refurbish them to ensure reusability. From there, it gets them ready for flying again.

Reusable rockets are all the rage at the moment. Blue Origin and SpaceX have already pioneered the concept, allowing governments and private companies to save a great deal of money. For India to effectively join the countries making waves in the space industry, it will need to first fix the issues plaguing its recently failed rocket.

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