The Indian Space Research Organisation is adding feather after feather to its cap. Just recently, it sent off the country’s first effort at planetary exploration, the Mars Orbiter Mission. On Sunday, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), equipped with an indigenous cryogenic engine, put the GSAT-14 communication satellite into orbit with effortless ease. It was an unequivocal demonstration of the space agency’s mastery of cryogenic technology, a key element in building more powerful launch vehicles. While its older sibling, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), can accommodate communication satellites weighing about 1,200 kg, the GSLV will be able to carry spacecraft that are heavier by around 1,000 kg. Sunday's triumph might well have come much earlier had the space agency pursued indigenous development immediately after an internal study team in December 1983 submitted a detailed report, which laid out how this could be accomplished. It reverted to the indigenous route after a 1991 deal to import the technology from the Soviet Union — and subsequently Russia — fell apart in the face of U.S. embargoes. Although the technology transfer was aborted, the indigenous cryogenic engine and stage are based on the Russian design, which is complicated and difficult to turn into flightworthy hardware. When the indigenous stage flew for the first time on the GSLV in April 2010, it spluttered to life just briefly and then died away. On Sunday, however, 20 years of painstaking effort culminated in the cryogenic stage performing flawlessly.

More satellite launches have been lined up for the GSLV. The rocket will also be required for Chandrayaan-2, which is expected to put an Indian lander and rover on the moon in a few years’ time. Nonetheless, the fact remains that ISRO’s launch requirements go beyond the GSLV’s capabilities. The space agency has already sent several communication satellites on Europe’s Ariane rockets. Just recently, Arianespace got the contract to carry two more Indian communication satellites, each weighing around 3,150 kg. Such foreign launches are expensive. The cost of last year’s launch of Insat-3D, an advanced weather satellite, on Ariane came to about Rs. 490 crore. ISRO is working on a more powerful rocket, the GSLV Mark III, which can take four-tonne communication satellites. The giant solid propellant booster for this rocket as well as its big liquid propellant core stage has already been tested on the ground. But a completely different cryogenic engine and stage must be got ready for it. The plan is to have the first developmental flight of the full rocket in two to three years’ time. A lot more of hard work lies ahead for ISRO’s scientists and engineers in order to meet that ambitious target.

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