The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)'s successful launch of GSLV-D5 on Sunday has ushered India into a select group of nations - "cryo club" - which have developed their own cryogenic rocket engine technology.
The technology will enable Indian rockets to carry heavy satellites into the space. From the business perspective, this will not only save a huge amount of foreign exchange, it will also bring more money into India as it has opened a $4 billion global satellite launch services market for Isro.
The technology is a stepping stone for India's ambitions to develop larger launchers to haul heftier payloads to Earth's orbit and toward interplanetary destinations.
"The mission will make the country self-reliant in all aspects of launch vehicle technology," said Isro officials. The cryogenic stage is technically a very complex system, compared to solid or earth-storable liquid propellant stages/engine due to the use of propellants at extremely low temperatures and the associated thermal and structural problems.
India is now the sixth country in the world after the US, Russia, Japan, China and France to master this technology. However, veteran space scientist and former Isro chief U R Rao, who had envisioned of India having its own cryogenic technology, says, "Any programme or development of Isro is not to compete with any country but for our requirement." The view was echoed by the present chairman of Isro, K Radhakrishnan.
Rao added, "Isro has mastered the technology, which is an extremely difficult one. It just need to scale it rapidly." He noted, in the case of PSLV, Isro had done it from less than a tonne and it can now carry satellites weighing up to 2-2.5 tonnes successfully. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was carried through PSLV and India is the first country to successfully launch it in the first attempt.
Rao said countries like China, which have mastered the cryogenic technology, are looking at the capability of carrying up to nine tonne and trying to build further. Going forward, Isro can go for higher capabilities, which it proved from PSLV, which started as less than one tonne and now it can take up to around 2-2.5 tonnes.
Isro's highest payload carrier, or the advanced version of GSLV-Mark III, is being developed and an experimental mission will be in April this year. The rocket will have a passive cryogenic stage/engine. Radhakrishnan said the cryogenic engine for the next GSLV version would take around three years to make it flight-ready.
"Twenty years of effort in realising the cryogenic engine has now been fructified. This shows the maturity of the team, and the leadership given to the team over decades," said Radhakrishan.
The successful launch is also a gentle reminder that denial of technology by the US & Co has failed to work against India. B N Raghunandan, dean, faculty of engineering & professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering at Indian Institute of Science, said it was a major milestone in rocket science in which there was almost stagnation for the last two decades.
While the technology complexity seems to have been mastered, the real challenge for Isro will be in sustaining the quality and consistency in launching successful flights like the PSLV.
On whether it was right to state India had joined the Cryo Club, he said, "Definitely, we can mention it, as we have now developed the technology and even have an edge when it goes commercial, thanks to frugal engineering which makes India attractive for other countries to launch their satellites using our capabilities."
Nidhi Goyal, senior director, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Pvt Ltd, said the successful launch of the indigenous engine was very important in terms of cost advantage and self-sufficiency. The cryo engine was one of the major import items which increased the expenditure bill to India in such projects. The cost advantage with the indigenous engine is 25-30 per cent. This was also one of the target set in the outcome budget of Isro in 2012-17.
Saving foreign exchange
K Sivan, project director, GSLV Mission, said GSLV had been a "naughty boy" till recently, but has become an "obedient boy" now. S Ramakrishnan, director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, which oversees rocket developments, said, "This definitely has given us confidence that we will be able to master any technology."
V S Hegde, chairman and managing director at Antrix Corporation, said GSLV would help the corporation to launch more satellites for other countries. So far, 38 satellites were launched by Isro for other countries. "(After) flying one more GSLV, we will be in a position to declare the rocket as commercially operational," he added.
There are niche satellites weighing around two tonnes and above, and in 12 months, the next GSLV rocket will be ready for a mission. "With one more mission, GSLV will be as reliable as ISRO's other rocket, the PSLV," said Radhakrishnan. He has lined up several satellite launches for the current GSLV rocket version, which would be carrying satellites GSAT-6, 7A, 9, GISAT and Chandrayaan-2. This would also be considered as a step ahead for India's efforts for manned missions to space.