India’s GSLV Mark 3 launch moves nation closer to full space autonomy

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WASHINGTON — India’s maiden launch of the GSLV Mark 3 rocket June 5 marks a big step forward on the country’s path to greater self sufficiency in space — a strategy India has used to guide its space activities not only in launch, but the construction and operation of telecommunications satellites.

Equipped with an Indian-made cryogenic upper stage, the GSLV Mark 3 is capable of placing 4,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the drop-off point for most communications satellites. In its debut, the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, launched GSAT-19, a 3,136-kilogram telecom satellite with Ku- and Ka-band beams, introducing domestic high-throughput capacity to a market where protectionist policies have constrained foreign supply.

The GSAT-19 mission demonstrated ISRO’s ability to launch heavier satellites that the space agency historically outsourced to Arianespace of Evry, France. Since 2000, Indian satellites weighing more than 2,500 kilograms have typically launched on Arianespace’s flagship Ariane 5 rocket.

The ability to launch heavier satellites means ISRO could soon launch more powerful home-grown satellites, something ISRO officials expressed direct interest in doing.

“I am sure that the successful mission of GSLV Mark 3-D1 today will lead to the third stream of operational launch vehicles for ISRO with higher capacity payloads,” P. Kunhikrishnan, the director of ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre, said during a post-launch speech, adding that future GSAT-series satellites “will lead to much higher-throughput satellites in the future.”

ISRO currently operates the less-powerful Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark 2, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle — a launcher smallsat companies have found popular despite a U.S. policy that discourages its use, — and sounding rockets.

GSAT-19 is based on ISRO’s I-3K satellite bus and has a design life of 10 years, about five years short of the nominal design life of most commercial telecommunications satellites. Along with its telecom payload, GSAT-19 is carrying a payload called the Geostationary Radiation Spectrometer, or GRASP, designed to study the effects of space-based radiation on satellites.

Central to the success of yesterday’s launch was the performance of a new domestic cryogenic third stage. ISRO’s Propulsion Complex director, P.V. Venkatakrishnan, said the C25 engine took 15 years to create, starting in 2002, following five years of background work that began as an idea in 1997.

The first GSLV used a Russian upper stage, followed by the Mark 2 version with an Indian cryogenic upper stage. The GSLV Mark 2 can deliver around 2,500-kilograms to GTO. ISRO tested the GSLV-Mark 3 in 2014 with a dummy upper stage.

K. Sivan, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the agency’s nerve center for launch vehicle design and development, described having a heavy-lift launcher and high-throughput satellite capabilities as “essential for the development of this country.”

The two technologies will “create revolutions in the applications of space-based technology for the common man of the country in a cost-effective way,” he said.

Kunhikrishnan said the Sriharikota spaceport is already planning the next GSLV-Mark 3 mission. A second vehicle assembly bay “is in the final stage of realization” that will be triple the size of ISRO’s current facility, he said.

For now, ISRO still relies on Arianespace to conduct launches that exceed its domestic capabilities. The agency’s next satellite, GSAT-17, launches June 28 on an Ariane 5 as part of a dual launch with Inmarsat and Arabsat’s Europasat/Hellas Sat 3 condosat.