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Rocket test flight, eye on manned mission

New Delhi, April 9: India will next year conduct its first experimental test flight of a new space launch vehicle, a rocket powerful enough to eventually ferry a manned mission into low earth orbit, space officials have said.

The flight in January 2014 will study the behaviour of a new version of the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle, called the GSLV-Mark III, during its ascent into the atmosphere before the rocket, as intended, dives into the sea, they said.

The GSLV-Mark III is the most powerful rocket under development by the Indian Space Research Organisation, a vehicle designed to carry satellites weighing 4,500kg towards parking slots about 35,000km above the Earth.

The rocket could also be used to carry a 10,000kg payload up to 400km, the capacity required to launch a manned space capsule into low earth orbit. But space officials have asserted that the government has not yet approved a manned mission yet.

The January 2014 launch will be an experimental flight intended only to study the performance of the GSLV-Mark III as it climbs through the atmosphere, powered by two solid rockets and a liquid rocket, Isro chairperson K. Radhakrishnan said.

The GSLV-Mark III rocket also has a cryogenic engine, powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. But in this experimental flight, the cryogenic engine will be loaded with liquid nitrogen to simulate flight conditions, but will not be ignited, Radhakrishnan said.

Space officials said this will be India’s first launch vehicle test in which the rocket is intended to climb to a certain altitude — about 120km — and then fall back into the sea. The GSLV-Mark III is not only heavier than the GSLV-Mark II — also under development — which is rated to carry 2,500kg satellites towards geosynchronous orbits, but also has an architecture significantly different than the GSLV-Mark II.

“The flight through the atmosphere is the most critical phase during a launch,” said S. Somnath, the project director of the GSLV-Mark III at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

“During the experimental flight, we’ll monitor in fine detail the rocket’s aerodynamic performance and the behaviour of its onboard systems without firing the cryogenic stage,” Somnath said.

Isro engineers expect to be ready for the first developmental flight of the GSLV-Mark III about 18 months after the January 2014 experimental flight. Three indigenous cryogenic engines have already been developed for GSLV-Mark III, but still need to be tested.

While Isro’s polar satellite launch vehicle has been routinely ferrying domestic and foreign satellites into space, the GSLV is intended to make India fully self-reliant in launching heavy telecommunication and weather satellites.

India has been using the European Ariane launch vehicle for its heavy satellites, but space officials say foreign launches are expensive. “In a typical foreign launch, India spends about three times the cost of a GSLV-Mark III,” an Isro engineer said.

Only four of the seven flights of lighter versions of the GSLV since 2001 have been successful. All successful GSLV flights had relied on Russian cryogenic engines. A developmental flight of a GSLV using an Indian cryogenic engine in 2010 had failed.

“We know what went wrong and have taken several measures to improve the engine,” a senior Isro engineer said. Radhakrishnan said the next flight of a GSLV with an Isro-made cryogenic engine will take place in July this year.