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Trusted rocket blows up on pride

Sriharikota/New Delhi, July 10: For the first time in its four-decade space saga, India today lost a tried and tested launch vehicle when the fourth flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle ended in the Bay of Bengal.

The country’s dream to send into space its heaviest satellite to date, the 2,168-kg Insat-4C aboard the GSLV flight F02, was shattered when the launch vehicle plunged into the sea minutes after lift-off.

After a delayed but normal lift-off at 5.37 pm from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, a spindle-shaped island 100 km north of Chennai, the GSLV deviated from its intended trajectory because of a faulty strap-on booster rocket.

For several seconds, engineers struggled to tame the deviant launch vehicle as it veered off course but were forced to activate the self-destruct command aboard the GSLV when their attempts failed (See chart).

“We ordered the self-destruct of the launch vehicle,” Madhavan Nair, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), said. “The debris has fallen into the sea and has not posed any danger to anybody.”

The blow came a day after Agni III, the long-range missile, missed the target during a test, though the two incidents have no link.

Experts say today’s failure is particularly disappointing as it follows a string of 12 consecutive successful launches since 1994. It is also the first failure of a proven launch vehicle that had been declared operational and has had three successful flights.

All four previous launch failures of Isro had involved launch vehicles in “development flights” ' a phase when engineers are still testing and evaluating the design, hardware and control systems before certifying it as operational and ready for routine flights.

“It’s a disappointment to witness a failure of an operational vehicle. But this is not a major setback,” said U.R. Ramachandra Rao, a former head of Isro and the space commission. “It happens once in a while. It’s happened to both Europe’s Ariane launch vehicle and the US space shuttle,” Rao told The Telegraph. The US had lost astronauts in its shuttle tragedies.

Seconds after the GSLV-F02 blasted off this evening, observers on the ground spotted thick dark grey plumes high in the sky. A twisted ribbon outline of reddish-orange smoke also appeared in the sky, followed by a mini-explosion. The launch vehicle had broken up and its parts could be seen plunging into the sea.

Nair said a preliminary analysis showed that in one of the four strap-on motors in the first stage of the flight, the pressure suddenly dropped to zero and it could no longer impart the upward thrust to the vehicle. Keeping in mind the safety of the local population, a destruct command was given, he said.

The Insat-4C had carried 12 high-power Ku band transponders designed to provide direct-to-home television services, facilitate video picture transmission and digital satellite news gathering. Isro sources estimate that the satellite alone cost Rs 96 crore, while the launch vehicle cost Rs 160 crore.

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