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India’s cryogenic conundrum

Last Updated: Monday, January 20, 2014 - 15:05

Amartya Sinha

January 5, 2014 was the day which has been permanently embedded in the contemporary history of India. On that day, a GSLV D5 rocket took off from the country’s only satellite launching station at Sriharikota. The great beast roared skywards amid cheers from the Indian scientific community and successfully placed GSAT-14 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit after a flight of 17 minutes. More than 20 years of sweat and efforts had come to fruitition with this historic launch which placed India in the big league of space faring nations. The earlier attempt to launch GSLV-D3 with an indigenous cryogenic engine in April, 2010 had failed.

The CE-7.5 cryogenic engine using liquid Oxygen and liquid Hydrogen as fuel has a thrust of 73.4 Kilonewtons in vacuum. With the historic launch, India has once again shown thumbs down to the American technology denial regime which had blocked the transfer of Cryogenic technology during the 1990s from Russia. Speculations are on the rise about some possible proliferation of the cryogenic engine technology from Russia to India during the late 1990s which reportedly led to indigenisation of the engine by the country. The drawings were reportedly transferred to India along with 6 cryogenic engines, 5 of which were used as the upper stages of previous GSLV flights.

But the time has not yet arrived for the country to celebrate our fireworks moment as ISRO has a long way to go in rocket propulsion. With the launch of GSLV D5, the country has stepped into the new domain of mid-heavy lift capability. The country’s lifting capacity to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has been enhanced to 5000 kilograms. But the real impetus will come when the country develops the capability to launch a 4 ton spacecraft to geostationary orbit when it launches the GSLV Mark-3 rocket on its first orbital flight in 2017. ISRO is also working on a semi-cryogenic engine which will use Kerosene and liquid Oxygen as fuel. The project has been sanctioned by the cabinet and is taking shape at ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion System Centre (LPSC) at Mahendragiri in Kerala. The United States had envisaged a similar semi cryogenic initiative when it landed two men on the moon in 1969. The semi cryogenic propulsion system may be used in ISRO’s future Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) which will give the nation manned lunar landing capability.

At the heat of the moment, ISRO’s main focus should be on developing the much bigger CE-20 cryogenic engine with a thrust of 200 Kilonewtons for the GSLV Mark-3. The CE-20 engine will enable the country to launch manned spacecrafts to low earth orbit. The proposed human spaceflight program is still pending before the cabinet for approval. Moreover, our space agency still remains undecided on using the GSLV Mark-2 or the much heavier GSLV Mark-3 to place a manned capsule into low earth orbit. The United States had used the Titan-2 GLV rocket with a lifting capacity of 3580 kilograms into low earth orbit for launching manned Gemini capsules with 2 crew members. Such a feat was achieved by the United States during the 1960s. Our GSLV Mark-2 is potentially capable of being used for such missions provided we manage to design a miniaturised 2 seater spacecraft. China has reportedly reverse engineered the Russian manned Soyuz capsule which has resulted in the Shenzhou program taking shape and maturing during the last decade. Our strategic tie up with Russia and the transfer of such technologies to India can yield significant benefits for the country’s manned spaceflight program.

Last but not the least, the January 5 GSLV D5 launch has also theoretically boosted the country’s ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) capabilities upto a range of 14000 kilometres. Though the use of cryogenic engines in modern ICBMs has been phased out due to the long preparation time required to a launch missile with such technology, the semi cryogenic engines are still being used in some Soviet era vintage prototypes. DRDO is already indigenously developing the 40 tonne rocket motor for the upcoming Agni-6 ICBM. The 40 tonne rocket motor will enable the missile to lob a 3 ton warhead upto a range of 8000 kilometres. If the weight of the warhead is decreased from 3 tons to 1 ton, the ICBM’s range can be enhanced to 10000 kilometres and beyond.

So, one can conclude that in the near future India may develop the ICBM capability to hit Western cities without using cryogenic engines. The day when the country test fires the Agni-VI ICBM at its full range, the Western technology denial regime will suffer one more embarrassing blow from the third world. But unfortunately, the Agni-VI project is also awaiting cabinet approval. The reluctance of the government to approve such ambitious projects once more brings to limelight the dovish and carelessness of the UPA government on serious strategic issues. It will be very interesting to see whether a change of guard after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections can give much deserved impetus to India’s space ambitions and intercontinental ballistic missile program.

First Published: Monday, January 20, 2014 - 15:05

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