Rocket failure hits India’s prospects in satellite launch market

By Fakir Balaji, IANS,

Bangalore : India’s prospects of hard-selling its capability to launch commercial satellites received a setback when one of its heavy rockets exploded on Christmas day due to a puzzling snag in the first stage, space experts opined.

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“As it is the second time this year when the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle crashed, we may have to do a lot of explanation to convince customers in the global satellite launch market about our capabilities as a reliable and cost-effective launcher,” K.R. Sridhara Murthi, former managing director of Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organsiation (ISRO), told IANS here.

Though India has a long way to go in launching heavy satellites into the higher or geosynchronous orbit, its ability to become a major player in the lower sun-synchronous or polar orbit comes under scanner, as the 418-tonne rocket developed snag in the first stage, which is common to the GSLV and the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV).

Through Rs.1,000-crore Antrix, the state-run Indian space agency launched a total of 25 satellites using PSLV for foreign customers under commercial agreements, demonstrating its multi-satellite capability over the past decade.

India also signed a technology safeguard agreement with the US in July 2009 to launch American satellites and spacecraft fitted with American components on commercial terms from its spaceport at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.

“We need to find out the exact cause of the snag and fix it sooner as we have to assure our existing and potential customers that we have the capability and maturity to launch any type of satellite in the lower orbits, as reliably and cost-effectively as before,” Murthi asserted.

Initial analysis of the voluminous data pointed to a hardware defect that might have snapped the connectors and prevented the actuator from receiving the signals to control the heavy rocket, leading to its break-up midair and forcing its destruction within a minute of a smooth lift-off from the spaceport at Sriharikota, about 80 km north-east of Chennai.

Coming as it does eight months after the previous rocket (GSLV-D3) crashed April 15 due to a snag in the third stage fitted with the indigenously developed cryogenic engine, the consecutive failure of the heavy launch vehicle Dec 25 has raised questions on the Indian space agency’s capability and reliability as a launcher, with its rockets facing teething problems.

“ISRO’s decision to review the GSLV programme is welcoming as it will give an opportunity for our scientists and technologists to have a re-look at all the structural aspects of the rocket though there seems to be no problem with its design per se,” Space Commission member Roddam Narasimha said.

Unlike in the case of PSLV that has a track record of 16 successful flights till date, the GSLV is in the development stages and requires a series of launches to demonstrate its capability and reliability to pitchfork India in the commercial launch market for putting heavier satellites in the higher orbits.

“As the track record of our GSLV launches has not been commendable with four of the seven missions failing in a decade, a thorough review of its programme will help us in fixing the problems they have been encountering and make us self-reliant in launching heavier satellites to meet the growing demand for transponders and pitch for carrying overseas satellites,” Narasimha pointed out.

Of the seven GSLV launches since April 2001, the second and third flights were fully successful while the maiden one had to be first aborted in March 2001 just before the lift-off as one of the four strap-on booster motors in the first stage did not develop adequate thrust. The fourth mission (GSLV-F02) with Insat-4C failed due to a component defect in one of the strap-on motors and the rocket had to be destroyed as in the case of the latest one (GSLV-F06).

“The failures in the GSLV series will not have any impact on our space programmes but will have a bearing on launch programmes in the geosynchronous and sun-synchronous orbits as we will have to carry out more quality checks and tests from manufacturing and assembling to launching the rockets to ensure 100 percent accuracy,” Murthi asserted.

Noting that rocket science involved complex technologies with no room for even a minor glitch, Narasimha said as the unpredictability factor was inherent in space missions, there is a need for stringent processes and systems with redundancy to overcome the kind of snags occurring in the twin GSLV failures though the causes might be different.

According to Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Ltd director Nidhi Goyal, there is a need for greater industry participation and involvement with the space agency to avert such failures arising out of manufacturing defects or mechanical snags.

“As the private sector plays a significant role in space projects, supplying hardware and software, the space agency has to transfer technology and ensure that the industry would invest in providing the required support in terms of sub-systems, components and services,” Goyal added.