SRIHARIKOTA (TIP): This rocket didn’t put a satellite in orbit. In fact, its payload plunged into the Bay of Bengal 20 minutes after the vehicle lifted off from Sriharikota. And that made it a success, for it was the first step to India’s manned space mission.
Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) achieved success of a different kind on December 18 when its GSLV Mark III on a suborbital experimental flight carried an unmanned crew module which was ejected at a height of 126km. Re-entering the atmosphere, its parachutes ensured a soft-thud on the sea. Recovered by the Indian Coast Guard, the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) will undergo tests to ascertain its efficiency in bringing back future astronauts from India.
“Everything went as per plan,” said ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan. “After a decade of developing the GSLV Mk II, we have tasted the first success of an experimental flight. The performances of the solid and liquid stages were as expected. The unmanned crew module worked extremely well.”
GSLV Mark III, weighing 630.5 tonnes – the heaviest rocket to be made by ISRO – lifted off from the second launch pad of Satish Dhawan Space Centre at 9.30am. Designed not to take the payload to a higher orbit, the rocket had a dummy cryogenic engine. The rocket went through the stage separations as planned and, 20 minutes later, ejected the crew module at an altitude of 126 km at a velocity of 5.3km per sec. The module re-entered the atmosphere at 80km and plunged into the Bay of Bengal, about 180km from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
For once, there was something more exciting than the launch—the recovery of the payload. CARE was fitted with a system that eludes a chemical that turns the sea water at the point of impact a fluorescent green. This was for the overflying Dornier aircraft to spot it even if its beacon and GPS tracker failed. But the signals were loud and clear as the Indian Coast Guard vessel Samudra Paheradar made a deft approach.
A 17-member team from ISRO on board the vessel recovered CARE at 4.30pm. S Somnath, project director, GSLV Mark III, said the module looked intact, signifying that it had withstood the high friction and temperature during the re-entry into the atmosphere. The crew module, which is expected to reach the Chennai port on December 21, will be further developed to send India’s first men in space, some ten years later.
Before that, ISRO will test the emergency ejection (crew safety mechanism) system in 2015. “We plan to have the (full-fledged) development launch of GSLV Mark III after two years,” said Radhakrishnan.
Scientists said the biggest challenge of the project was avoiding the separated parts of the rocket colliding with the crew module during re-entry. The cryogenic stage of the launch vehicle was not activated as its indigenous C 25 cryo engine is still in early ground test phase.