On August 12, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced its mission to launch an Earth-observation satellite had ended in failure. This breaks the agency’s record of 16 straight successful space launches and is its first failure since 2017.
At 5:43 a.m. local time, the 12-story-tall Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island in eastern India. Six minutes after launch, the GSLV was supposed to ignite its cryogenic third stage but was unable to.
“Performance of first and second stages was normal. However, Cryogenic Upper Stage ignition did not happen due to technical anomaly. The mission couldn’t be accomplished as intended,” ISRO said in a tweet.
The GSLV rocket was carrying the EOS-03 Earth observation satellite, which was expected to provide real-time imagery of India, assist with tracking natural disasters, collect agricultural and forestry data, and monitor crop health and weather patterns. The satellite was supposed to operate for 10 years.
EOS-03 was designed as a geostationary satellite, meaning that it would remain in a fixed position over Earth, syncing in with its orbit. ISRO did not give details about what would happen to the rocket or the satellite now floating in space.
“Since the third stage has not ignited, it has not attained the velocity which would keep it in orbit. It will fall back to Earth sometime soon. Tracking will tell that later,” Pallava Bagla, an outside expert, said to The Associated Press. According to U.S.-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell, the satellite will likely fall somewhere in the Andaman Sea, to the west of Thailand.
The launch was India’s first this year. Last year was a trying time for ISRO since all space launches post EOS-01 in January 2020 were put on hold following the outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). As a result, the agency only had two more space launches in 2020, the second one in November and the third in December.
For 2021, the ISRO has planned five more missions. The launch of EOS-02, which was postponed in March, is now expected to occur in September. However, all missions will likely be put on hold until ISRO figures out the technical problems behind the recent GSLV launch failure.
ISRO, established in 1969, has grown into one of the top space agencies in the world. It is one of only six government space agencies that have full launch capabilities, can launch extraterrestrial missions, deploy cryogenic engines, and operate large fleets of satellites.
ISRO was the first space agency in the world to find water on the moon. It was also the first to successfully place a probe in the Martian orbit on its first attempt. That mission, called Mangalyaan, only cost 73 million dollars, which was far cheaper than NASA’s corresponding Maven mission, which cost 671 million dollars. In fact, the Mangalyaan mission was cheaper than the Hollywood space movie Gravity, which cost 100 million dollars to produce.
In 2018, India announced its first manned mission into space. ISRO plans to send a three-person crew in a craft that will remain in low Earth orbit (roughly 186-248 miles above Earth) for five to seven days. The budget allocated for the mission is 100 billion rupees ($1.35 billion). The first uncrewed test flight is scheduled for 2022, with a second one following in 2022-2023. A crewed flight is planned for 2023.
“ISRO has developed some critical technologies like re-entry mission capability, crew escape system, crew module configuration, thermal protection system, deceleration and floatation system, sub-systems of life support system, etc. required for this program,” ISRO said in a statement. If successful, India will become the fourth nation after the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and China to independently send humans to space.
During the recent 40-year-celebration of ISRO’s APPLE satellite project at Chandigarh University, project director of APPLE, Professor RM Vasagam, said that the Indian space program is “much more advanced” than Chinese agencies because most of its technologies have been developed indigenously without relying on other nations. The Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE) was India’s first indigenous, experimental communication satellite.
“In the Mars Mission also India succeeded in its first attempt itself in comparison to China. The only difference between India and China Space Programs is the budget allocation and also number of professionals working in the respective countries. In India, only 18000 people are working in the space program as compared to more than 2 Lac (200,000) in China,” Professor Mylswamy Annadurai said in a speech at the meeting.