New Indian rocket successful on its inaugural flight

Posted: April 18, 2001

A series of images from the inaugural flight of GSLV. Photos: ISRO
India's fledgling space program experienced a major boost Wednesday as the maiden Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle took to the skies and successfully delivered an experimental communications satellite into orbit.

The GSLV-D1 mission began at 1013 GMT (6:13 a.m. EDT) from India's Sriharikota launch complex, located on the east coast of the nation near the Bay of Bengal.

Officials declared the launch a success after the GSLV's third stage injected the 3,000-pound GSAT-1 communications satellite cargo into the targeted egg-shaped geosynchronous transfer orbit about 17 minutes after liftoff.

The launch came nearly three weeks after a fiery engine shutdown aborted the flight one second before blastoff. Originally set to occur on March 28, the inaugural flight was scrubbed when the lack of thrust was detected in one of the strap-on boosters, triggering computers to automatically abort the liftoff.

Technicians traced the problem to defective plumbing in the oxidizer flow line of the engine, which had escaped detection during testing. The suspect engine was replaced with a spare for today's launch.

Officials call the launch a "textbook" flight, according to Reuters.

Once in its final orbit, GSAT-1 will conduct various experiments on propulsion, navigation and communications systems for use in future communications satellites built by India.

At least one more successful flight is expected to be required before India would place a paying customer's payload atop the rocket. A time frame for that launch is not yet known.

India developed the GSLV to try to enter the market to launch heavy commercial satellites into geostationary orbit, competing directly with rockets in Russia, China, Europe and the United States. According to some reports, Indian officials say that the new GSLV could offer launches for as much as 25 percent less than its opposition.

In addition, GSLV could also launch Indian geostationary satellites, making the country's space program self-reliant -- not depending on rockets from other nations to deliver its payloads to orbit.

The $300 million GSLV program has taken around a decade to fully develop since its inception. The oft-delayed project has hit snags throughout its history, including being forced to partially develop its own technologies.

Russia had intended to provide India with various rocket systems knowledge, but instead opted to only give India seven cryogenically-fueled engines for the GSLV's third stage, reports say.

Those provided engines should allow Indian officials to keep the GSLV program going through 2003, when India hopes to roll out its own cryogenic third stage engine for use on the GSLV.

The GSLV rocket on the launch pad. Photo: ISRO
As for the technical aspects and specifications of the launcher, the GSLV stands almost 150 feet tall when fully integrated. At launch, the three-stage vehicle weighs around 401 tons.

GSLV's first stage assembly features a solid-fueled core booster and four liquid-fed strap-on boosters. The four strap-ons feature a Viking 2-like powerplant that burns a combination of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

The second stage for the GSLV burns the same propellant as the four strap-ons, but that fuel feeds a more efficient derivative of the more advanced Viking 4 engine.

The third stage burns a combination of super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. That fuel combo feeds the Russian-developed restartable RD-56M engine.

Throughout its history, the Indian space program has achieved mixed results with three different rocket variants. Their most recent rocket launch before today's occurred in May 1999 when the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully launched three research satellites.