'Fat boy' launch is a big deal for Isro and will boost India's stature

On Monday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) launched its heaviest rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark (MK) III, also nicknamed the Fat Boy, from Sriharikota. The new launch vehicle was used to place a 3,136 kg GSAT-19 communications satellite into orbit. The GSAT-19 is expected to improve internet connectivity across the country. In doing so, Isro not only answered many of its critics but also achieved a feat that eluded it for almost three decades. With this launch, Isro has notched up several firsts. For one, it has demonstrated its ability to place satellites weighing three to four tonnes, almost doubling its existing capability. More importantly, the success also shows that Isro has been able to finally master the cryogenic engine (CE) technology and can now rely on such indigenously built engines for future expeditions. As a result, the launch has greatly enhanced India’s stature in the international market for launching similarly heavy satellites, not to mention reducing its own dependence on foreign space agencies This achievement will also mean that India’s hopes of launching a manned space mission could soon be a reality.

The latest achievement caps a string of successes for Isro over the past few years during which it has gone from strength to strength in augmenting its launch capability. After the mission to Mars in 2014, which raised India’s credentials in the global community, Isro launched a record-breaking 104 satellites via a single rocket in February this year. However, for the longest time, Isro was largely employing its more reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and had relatively limited success on the GSLV front. While the agency was lauded for frugality, the fact was that India’s weakness on the GSLV front meant that it was not competing at the business end of the market where heavy satellites were required to be placed in orbit. The PSLV was underpowered for heavier satellites. To compete with the global players, including China, India needed to improve its GSLV capabilities.

A key component holding back India’s advancement in GSLV has been CE technology, which was denied to the country in the early 1990s when the Russians backed out after sustained US pressure. In essence, CEs are high-tech steam engines, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Two aspects make it a tricky technology to master. One, the two elements in question have to be liquefied and stored separately at very low temperatures of minus 250 degrees Celsius. Moreover, CEs require extremely cold fuel tanks to be placed in close proximity to extremely hot combustion chambers. But they reward by providing higher thrust-to-weight ratios and allowing much heavier satellites to be launched. After several failures at indigenously made CEs, two past launches — the GSLV-FO5 launching the INSAT-3DR satellite in September 2016 and the GSLV-F09 launching the GSAT-9 in May this year — paved the way for this latest success. The self-reliance in launching heavier payloads is reportedly also expected to save about 25 per cent in the cost of future launches. The flight of GSLV MK III has conclusively proved that Isro has finally arrived. Hardly 11 countries in the world have developed such capabilities and are able to launch satellites by using their indigenously built rocket systems. With Monday’s successful launch, India has joined this club.

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