BANGALORE, India — India’s space program suffered a major setback April 15 when the maiden flight of a satellite launcher outfitted with the nation’s first home-built cryogenic upper stage veered off course, sending its payload — the experimental GSAT-4 communications satellite — into the sea.

The Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) lifted off at 4:27 p.m. local time from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India’s southeastern coast and reached an altitude of 65 kilometers before plunging downward. Telemetry was lost about 8 minutes into the flight that was expected to last 20 minutes until payload separation.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Radhakrishnan said in a televised statement that the first two stages performed well and that the rocket’s cryogenic third stage also might have fired, but that the launch was done in by a failure of the upper stage’s two vernier control motors to ignite. However, at a subsequent press conference, Radhakrishnan said it was not certain that the rocket’s upper-stage engine fired during the ill-fated flight.

“A detailed failure analysis will be carried out,” Radhakrishnan said. “We will put all efforts to ensure that the next flight with the indigenous cryogenic engine takes place within a year.”

ISRO has spent 3.36 billion rupees ($76 million) over the last 17 years developing a domestic alternative to the Russian-built cryogenic upper stage used on the GSLV’s five flights since 2001.

ISRO began its program to develop and build its own cryogenic engine in 1993 after Russia — under pressure from Washington — refused to transfer the technology.

The April 15 launch failure is likely to impact the proposed 2012 launch of the Chandrayaan-2 lunar orbiter mission and planned communications satellite launches.

The cryogenic stage was built at ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Nambi Narayanan, a former head of the center who was involved in the development of the cryogenic engine, told Space News that the likely cause of failure is an explosion that can occur during a so-called hard start when a rich mixture of fuel and oxidizer is suddenly ignited in the vacuum of space. While the cryogenic engine had been extensively tested and reviewed by experts within and outside ISRO, it was not tested in conditions simulating high altitude, he said.

The GSAT-4 satellite that fell into the Indian Ocean carried a Ka-band transponder and a payload for a GPS-aided navigation system for civil aviation.

The failed GSLV launch originally was intended to carry the Tel Aviv University Ultraviolet Explorer (TAUVEX) space telescope under a 2003 agreement between ISRO and the Israel Space Agency, but the payload was subsequently manifested for a later GSLV flight.

“With hindsight I am obviously relieved that it (TAUVEX) remained safely on the ground,” Noah Brosch, principal investigator for the mission, told Space News in an e-mail. “I have no idea when the alternative launch will happen; I understand that this is being discussed by the Indian Space Research Organization and by the Israel Space Agency. From my part, and on behalf of my scientist colleagues, I certainly hope that the launch will take place shortly so that the Indian and Israeli astronomical communities would benefit from the data gathered by TAUVEX.”

Brosch said that he and his TAUVEX colleagues watched the launch on their computers. “We prayed for a successful launch but instead saw the launch failure as it happened,” he said. “We understand that such happenings are encountered by every nation that develops launchers and satellites in the early stages of a program and are to be expected.”

Based in Bangalore, Killugudi S. Jayaraman holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He was formerly science editor of the...