GSLV Mark III and the road ahead

June 5, 2017 will go down as a historic date for the Indian space programme with the success of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launching the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III (GSLV Mk-III) in its full-fledged maiden flight. In this success, ISRO also breaks free of the first-time launch jinxes for India which the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk II (GSLV Mk II) faced during their first flights.

Although ISRO had tested the GSLV Mk III’s solid motor on a previous mission, June 5 was the first time the launch vehicle was being flown with an upgraded cryogenic engine. The post-launch briefings saw Chairman ISRO mention that scientists had performed 199 tests for the launch success of GSLV MARK III since Dec 2014 and reinstating the goal that ISRO is focussing is to achieve 12 launches per year.

With the success of GSLV Mk III, one could say that India has gained technological redemption from the era of technology denial on the back of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that led to the Indo-Russian deal of cryogenic technology transfer falling short of its original intent. The success of GSLV Mk III will lead to completing India’s self-sufficient capacity to put payloads of up to 4-tonnes into geostationary orbits or about ten tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

From saving to the exchequer viewpoint, this launch success means that ISRO will not be going anymore with Arianespace for its 4-tonne payloads and could potentially save India anywhere between INR 250-400 Crore on each launch. However, while ISRO is looking at developing larger communications satellites of 6-tonnes, there remains a gap in the country which ISRO has to close to put such increased payloads into geostationary orbits. This will be the task ahead for the launch vehicle team in ISRO with the proposed expansion of the payload capabilities.

The road ahead for launch vehicles in India

Following the successful launch of the GSLV Mk-III ISRO is slated to launch a kerosene-based semi-cryogenic engine, projected to be functional for flight tests by 2021 with the envisioned engine using refined kerosene as a propellant, as opposed to the conventional combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. While liquid oxygen will still function as the oxidizer, an eco-friendly alternative, kerosene can be used after storing at a normal temperature, while the previous liquid hydrogen had to be stored at (-)253 degree Celsius.

The success of GSLV Mk III will provide more impetus to the development of the Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) whose core objective is to design a modular architecture that could eventually replace the PSLV, GSLV Mk I/II and LVM3 with a single family of launchers. ULV could also be used for human spaceflight missions for sending India’s own space station into orbit and ferrying astronauts.

As far as the launch vehicle scene in India is concerned, the immediate roadmap for ISRO seems to be in operationalising the private sector consortium to develop PSLVs by the industry by 2020, expanding the scope of GSLV Mk III to higher payload capacity, developing semi-cryogenic engines that can lead to future launch vehicles to have a combination of semi-cryogenic and cryogenic stages and expanding the scope of scale of the development of a fully reusable launch vehicle.

Global perspective – Reusability to change the landscape

One of the biggest questions that are emerging in the global launch vehicle scene is how will re-usability change the landscape of the launch vehicles. Today there are over 40 launch vehicles at least with some backing (either private or public-private) with different concepts of lifting payloads into LEO and GEO with aspects of re-usability.

While companies like Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems seem to be serious contenders to take up multiple launches on a weekly basis for small payloads to LEO, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have showcased larger re-usable boosters already. The effect of these technological advances will affect the global launch industry in possible significant price reduction as far as the access to space is concerned. Therefore, these developments are likely to affect the market that today ISRO’s PSLV and possibly GSLV is capturing with the ‘low cost’ tag.

The developments in reusable launch vehicles have also led to several traditional actors in the launch vehicle business considering how reusability will affect their own standing and have led to them starting to take measures in considering investments into such vehicle architectures.  There are reports of Chinese experts have already built a prototype model to test theories on the reusable rocket booster’s landing subsystems and completed “experimental verifications” using “multiple parachutes” supposedly attached to the booster. Similar renewed interest is also emerging from the Russians.

Similarly, in Europe, European Space Agency (ESA) is providing support to a French reusable rocket engine programme that would lead to an engine test in three years. ESA with its Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLPP) is allocating 85 million euros ($91 million) to Prometheus (a liquid oxygen and-methane-fuelled reusable engine) to fund research and development leading to a 2020 test firing. Prometheus engine will extensively use new technologies and production methods, including 3-D printing and will have a target price of 1 million euros which is 1/10th of the cost of the Ariane 6’s liquid-oxygen and liquid-hydrogen Vulcain 2.1 engine.

In his recent analyses of the GSLV success, Ajey Lele notes that ‘Unfortunately, India also took more time to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine. Globally, on average, various countries are known to have taken around eight to ten years to fully develop and master this technology. However, India took almost one and half decades.’ Given the lack of a strong private sector infrastructure to develop launch vehicle technologies in the country, it is extremely important that the Government of India invests into the development of re-usability in the country to ensure that ISRO can keep up to the technological changes in launch vehicles and therefore the price to put payloads into LEO and GEO.

Narayan Prasad is the Curator of NewSpace India. He can be reached @cosmosguru

This article first appeared on ORF Space Alert and has been republished.