A hearty round of congratulations appears to be in order as on the morning of Thursday 18 December, India’s space agency successfully conducted the first experimental flight of its next generation launch vehicle. The 630-tonne Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III) is the agency’s largest rocket, significantly boosting the payloads that India can deliver to space. Hopefully, this will allow the nation to tap further into the $300 billion global space industry.
GSLV Mk-III blasted off at 9:30 am IST from Satish Dhawan Space Center on Sriharikota Island, Andhra Pradesh, in a test mission that came with a $25 million price tag. The rocket was carrying an unmanned capsule, CARE, which the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) hopes could one day send two to three astronauts to space.
This 3,775 kg module was carried to the intended height of 129 kilometers (80 miles) before separating from the rocket’s upper stage. The capsule then re-entered the atmosphere and safely plopped into the Bay of Bengal just 20 minutes later with the aid of parachutes. ISRO will now fetch CARE from the ocean and return it to Sriharikota for further experiments. According to the agency, it will likely be another seven years before the capsule will be ready to take humans into space.
Alongside testing out the rocket’s carrying capabilities, the launch allowed the agency to scrutinize GSLV MK-III’s atmospheric stability and design. At the moment, it only has two engines, but a third is currently being developed.
“We still need to put a heavier third engine to ensure this vehicle can be used successfully for manned missions and heavier satellite launches,” said Mayank Vahia, a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
While ISRO has successfully launched light satellites in the past, it has struggled to send up heavier payloads that other countries have wanted to launch, meaning it has failed to accomplish a large chunk of its planned missions in recent years. However, GSLV Mk-III will be able to carry satellites weighing 4,000 kilograms into space, which is around twice as much as the agency’s current capability.
This latest test mission is the second time this year that ISRO has demonstrated it no longer intends to be nipping at the heels of the big boys of space research. Back in September, the agency successfully slipped a satellite, Mangalyaan, into orbit around Mars. Not only was this a maiden voyage, which is a remarkable achievement considering the number of failed attempts to reach the Red Planet, but it was achieved on a shoestring. NASA’s MAVEN mission, which arrived just two days before Mangalyaan, cost $671 million; ISRO’s mission cost just $74 million.