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Once under US embargo, GSLV Mk III up for launch

GSLV Mk III (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle), the heaviest rocket made by ISRO, is scheduled to launch India’s high throughput communication satellite, GSAT-29 on November 14, 2018 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota.

This launch, which comes about 14 years later than originally planned because of a US embargo, will realize almost three decades of long and arduous research by ISRO. Apart from setting the ball rolling for ISRO‘s future projects including Chandrayaan-2 in 2018 and a manned mission, the launch will also make ISRO a contender in the global heavy payload market.

Mk III will be India’s most powerful launch vehicle built to lift satellites weighing up to 4,000 kg in into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) or about 10 tons to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is about twice the capability of current GSLV Mk II, and more than thrice the capacity of ISRO’s old workhorse PSLV. ISRO’s prestigious Chandrayaan-II Mission is designated to be launched by Mk III.

What is more interesting is this very rocket that was placed under embargo by the US government will be used for the NASA-ISRO joint mission that entails launching an advanced satellite into orbit in 2021. At $1.5 billion, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (also known as NISAR) is the world’s most expensive earth imaging satellite. The 2,200-kg satellite will be launched using ISRO’s GSLV Mk III.

What is GSLV and what is the controversy around it?

GSLV-F09 goes up with the South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9) on May 5, 2017
GSLV-F09 goes up with South Asia Satellite (GSAT-9) on May 5, 2017

GSLV is an expendable launch system developed to enable India to launch its heavier satellites without dependence on foreign rockets. GSLV has been used in 11 launches so far, since its first launch in 2001 through to its most recent launch on May 5, 2017 of the GSAT 9.

Now ISRO has readied GSLV Mk III, which is capable of launching up to 4,000-kg satellites into space. The three-stage GSLV Mk-III adopts the flight-proven solid and liquid stages of the PSLV and a cryogenic upper stage.

It is this cryogenic technology that led US to impose sanctions on India. A Russian company Glavcosmos was to provide the technology as per an agreement signed in 1991, but backed out of the deal after US imposed sanctions in 1992 on fears that India was making war missiles — a hollow charge since till date it isn’t practical to use cryogenic engines to power missiles.

At that time, the US government wanted the deal to be called off because it felt it violated some terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control regime that US and Russia both are signatories to.

India’s Rise as a Space Power by former ISRO chairman Prof U.R. Rao
India’s Rise as a Space Power by former ISRO chairman Prof U.R. Rao

In his book India’s Rise as a Space Power, Prof U.R. Rao, former ISRO chairman, speculates that the embargo was result of the commercial threat ISRO was starting to pose to NASA. “While the US did not object to the agreement with Glavkosmos at the time of signing, the rapid progress made by ISRO in launch vehicle technology was probably the primary cause which triggered [the sanctions],” Prof. Rao writes in his book.

He estimates that ISRO’s success with the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) in 1987 and commencement of the PSLV program in the next couple of years, brought down Indian launch costs to at least 50% lesser than prevalent rates in the West. This is possibly what didn’t go down well with US.

How ISRO worked around it?

Undaunted, ISRO started the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project in April 1994 on its own. Russia finally agreed to sell 7 cryogenic stages and 1 ground mock-up stage instead of 5 cryogenic stages and the technology to build the stages. After the maiden launch failure in 2001, GSLV became operational in 2003 when it successfully placed GSAT-2 in 2003.

After several hits and misses and intermittent successes, the consistency in the performance of the vehicle, especially the cryo stage, was established with the spectacular success of GSLV-F09 launching the 2,230-kg South |Asia Satellite (GSAT-9) into its planned Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) on May 5, 2017. GSLV Mk III was first tested in the first week of June.