India Tests GSLV-3 Rocket and Crew Capsule with Suborbital Launch

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BANGALORE, India  — In a two-in-one mission, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully conducted the first experimental flight of its next-generation launch vehicle and demonstrated the re-entry and recovery of a prototype crew capsule.

The Dec. 18 maiden flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (GSLV-3) began with a liftoff at 9:30 a.m local time from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on the southeastern coast of India and was over in 20 minutes.

India's GSLV-Mark 3 rocket lifting off on Dec. 18, 2014 suborbital test flight. Credit: ISRO
India’s GSLV-Mark 3 rocket lifting off on Dec. 18, 2014 suborbital test flight. Credit: ISRO

ISRO said in a statement that this “suborbital” experimental mission was intended to test the vehicle performance during the critical atmospheric phase of its flight. The vehicle carried a passive, or nonfunctional, cryogenic upper stage.

The rocket carried a 3,775-kilogram  unmanned crew module built by Indian industry. The module, designed to accommodate three astronauts, separated from the rocket at an altitude of 127 kilometers and, after being  slowed by parachutes, splashed down in the Bay of Bengal.

The 42.4-meter tall GSLV-3 is a three-stage vehicle with  a liftoff weight of 630 metric tons. The first stage consists of  two solid-rocket motors, each with 200 tons of propellant. Its  second stage uses two restartable  engines, with 110 tons of liquid propellant.

As designed, the cryogenic upper stage of the rocket features a propellant loading of 25 tons of liquid-oxygen and -hydrogen. But in this flight only the first two stages were fired; the cryogenic upper stage was inert. The mission objective was to test the first two stages — they had never flown before — and validate the rocket’s aerodynamic stability during the ascent phase through the atmosphere.

ISRO said in a statement that the flight aimed “to validate the re-entry technologies envisaged for crew module and enhance  the understanding of blunt body re-entry aerodynamics and parachute deployment  in cluster configuration.” With the success  the rocket “has moved a step closer to its first developmental flight with the functional cryogenic upper stage.”

“It has been a significant day for ISRO,” the agency’s chairman, Koppilli Radhakrishnan, said in a post-launch speech. “The performance of solid and liquid stage motors and the unmanned crew module was as expected.”

Radhakrishnan said the rocket’s cryogenic upper stage is still in development and that he is confident the first full-fledged flight will take place in two years. Once ready, he said, the GSLV-3 will be able to launch satellites weighing 4 tons and could be used for the Indian manned spaceflight program.

The GSLV-3, in development since 2002, was initially expected to become operational by 2010 or 2011, with its first flight in 2009 or 2010. The demonstration flight was pushed back several times, one reason being the failure of the home-made cryogenic upper stage during a 2010 flight of the current-generation GSLV.

ISRO has sought about 125 billion rupees ($1.9 billion) for its human spaceflight endeavor but India’s government has yet to approve the funding.

Radhakrishnan has said that ISRO could send astronauts to space within seven to eight years of getting a government nod.