India Prepares to Launch GSLV With New Cryo Engine Amid Controversy

GSLV Mark III engine test (Photo: ISRO)
GSLV Mark III engine test (Photo: ISRO)

A bit more on India’s planned April 15 test of an indigenous cryogenic upper stage, which is proceeding along with some controversy:

Later this month, if the Indian space agency’s attempt to launch its largest rocket, the GSLV-D3 with an indigenous cryogenic engine succeeds, then India will join the elite club of five nations in the world to have successfully developed such technology.

For the country’s rocket scientists, the yet-to-be-achieved breakthrough is significant on two fronts–one, they will achieve self reliance and confidence in space technology. Two, India will emerge as a serious player in the $4 billion global satellite launch market.

ISRO spokesperson S Satish says, “An indigenous cryogenic engine will power the GSLV for the first time. This is the maiden flight of a launch vehicle and it will give capability to the country of mastering advanced launch vehicle technology which very few countries have at present.”

Till date, the US, France, Japan, Russia and China have developed their own engines for satellite launch vehicles. Confidence levels of ISRO scientists are high as earlier this year, they successfully tested the indigenous cryogenic technology when the engine was tested for the full flight duration of 720 seconds at the liquid propulsion test facility at Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu. Hour of reckoning is round the corner as the indigenous cryogenic engine now remains to be tested in actual flight.

As tends to happen with ISRO, this latest effort to vaunt into the ranks of the major space powers is embroiled in a bit of controversy. It is a relatively minor matter, but it illustrates some of the problems the Indian space agency seems to have in dealing with both scientists and unpleasant news.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has come under criticism from promoters of an Israeli astronomical satellite for allegedly delaying its launch and shifting the blame on schedule slippages. Tauvex comprises three ultra-violet band telescopes developed by Tel Aviv University and Israel space agency (ELOP), with Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics providing the software and science and mission planning. Its flight date on board an Indian launcher was first supposed to be in late 2005 and has continually slipped.

Tauvex, whose scientific data would be open to all Indian and Israeli scientists, was scheduled to be launched by ISRO’s GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle) this month but India’s space agency said it would not be part of this mission.

“Yes, it was originally (scheduled to be launched by GSLV this month). But then we are not putting it because it’s an astronomy payload. And on review, we found that the signals that we can get from geostationary orbit are far less compared to a lower orbit and sensitivity of the (Tauvex) instrument also had come down”, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan told PTI. “So, we best thought that we will have a mission later.”

It would seem a bit odd that ISRO would make this decision based on the quality of the science return; it’s not the space agency’s satellite. Scientists working on the project say they would be perfectly happy to send it to GEO; the sensitivity issue could be overcome with longer exposures and observation time. The actual problem, they claim, lies with the rocket.

The Israeli official said the real reason for postponing the Tauvex launch has to do with GSLV boosters which are not powerful enough to carry additional weight. This month’s GSLV carries GSAT-4 experimental communication satellite, weighing 2200 kg. According to the official, the 80-kg Tauvex was removed after its integration with GSAT-4 because of the “weight problem.”

“We are ticked off because actually GSLV booster is not powerful enough (as GSLV already will carry its optimum capability with GSAT-4). It’s a problem with GSLV booster,” he said.

This has a ring of truth. It seems rather unusual to go through the integration process and then pull the satellite based on supposedly poor scientific return. Did someone suddenly realize, “Oh shit, we’re sending this to GEO? What the hell are we doing?” And was that person fired?

Scientists on the project also complained about a difficulty in understanding ISRO’s schedule and being left out of the loop on decisions. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Last May, ISRO raised the orbit of its Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter from 100 km to 200 km. The space agency’s official explanation for the change:

“With the successful completion of all the mission objectives from 100 km above the moon since November 2008, we have raised the height of the spacecraft to 200 km Tuesday to enable imaging lunar surface with a wider swath.”

This was true — up to a point. The satellite could certain study a wider swath from there. But, scientist were rather surprised to be suddenly receiving less precise data taken from twice the altitude. It was a further surprise to find out that they had finished their observations at 100 km. They hadn’t.

It turned out that the orbiter had experienced serious temperature control problems, which ISRO had downplayed, and had suffered failures in its control system, which the space agency did not reveal until July. The increase in orbit was an effort to keep the satellite operational. It wasn’t until after Chandrayaan-1 completely failed at the end of August – after only 10 months in space and not even halfway through its two-year mission – that word began to leak out about how troubled the mission had been from the start.

ISRO officials responded with a big PR effort to declare that the mission was a massive success. Then ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair put mission completion at 90 percent, then 95 percent. He raised that to over 100 percent once data from the spacecraft confirmed the presence of water on the moon. The announcement was a fortunate thing for ISRO; it was the sort of media event that made everyone forget almost all transgressions. It was also true, although few pointed it out amidst the euphoria, that the early failure of Chandrayaan-1 prevented scientists from mapping the full extent of the water on the lunar surface.

Now, the technical failures are not, in themselves, problems. They’re normal in space exploration; it’s how one learns. If you were to judge NASA by all of its problems and outright failures, the agency would have a poor reputation, indeed. Instead, it has achieved things unequaled in the world by learning from those mistakes and being honest about them.

ISRO wants to be a major player in space. It should take some lessons from NASA. The American space agency is far from perfect, but it has a very open policy in dealing with scientists, the media and the public it serves. When LCROSS experienced a loss of most of its fuel last Aug. 22, the news was quickly released. NASA Ames Director Pete Worden wrote about it in his Twitter feed within days. It was quite a contrast to ISRO’s handling of Chandrayaan-1, which failed exactly a week later.

Welcome to the major leagues, boys. You’ll find the scrutiny is a lot more intense in The Show. And people are far less tolerant of nonsense. Best to learn the lesson now.