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Updated: April 17, 2010 08:30 IST

Why didn't the cryogenic engine ignite?

T. S. Subramaniam
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The GSLV-D3, which lifted off from Sriharikota on Thursday, later plunged into the sea as the indigenous cryogenic engine failed to ignite. Photo: V. Ganesan
The GSLV-D3, which lifted off from Sriharikota on Thursday, later plunged into the sea as the indigenous cryogenic engine failed to ignite. Photo: V. Ganesan

The non-ignition of the cryogenic engine on board the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D3) led to the failure of the mission on Thursday (April 15), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has more or less concluded. “The cryogenic engine has not ignited, that is for sure. Why it has not ignited, the reasons have to be found out,” said S. Satish, ISRO spokesman, on Friday.

All the telemetry data had come in by 1 p.m. on Friday and the ISRO top-brass was studying them line by line. The GSLV-D3 is a three-stage rocket and it was flying with an indigenous cryogenic engine for the first time.

A cryogenic engine uses liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees Celsius as fuel and liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees as oxidiser. The vehicle lifted off as planned at 4.27 p.m. and its performance was normal up to the end of its second stage till 293 seconds from the lift-off. But the vehicle developed problems when the cryogenic upper stage should have ignited 304 seconds after the lift-off, and it fell into the sea.

An authoritative former ISRO official said: “It is very clear that the cryogenic engine did not ignite when you look at the curve [of the vehicle's trajectory], everything was normal up to the GS2 [second stage] shutdown. Then you can see clearly that there is no increment in the vehicle's velocity. The velocity is the same. It started losing its altitude also.”

The ISRO rocket engineers are puzzled why the cryogenic engine did not fire at all. On April 9, they had repeatedly told reporters at Sriharikota that the GSLV-D3 was “the most reviewed vehicle” because it was flying an indigenous cryogenic engine for the first time.

A national panel consisting of former ISRO chairmen, specialists in cryogenic technology and academicians had reviewed the vehicle several times and signalled the go-ahead. But for these repeated reviews, the flight would have taken place in December 2009, they had said.

Besides, the indigenous cryogenic engine was tested on the ground cumulatively for 7,767 seconds, while it would fire for only 720 seconds in flight.

Post-flight, ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan said the entire cryogenic stage, including its engine, passed the qualification test on November 15, 2007 when it fired for 720 seconds. “In the last three years, we have been working on the flight-engine,” he said. But he pointed to one big difficulty — the ignition of the cryogenic engine taking place in the vacuum of space [which cannot be simulated on the ground].

S. Ramakrishnan, Director (Projects), Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, also noted, “Ignition in vacuum of the cryogenic engine could be done only in flight.”

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How Nataraj conludes it is electronics problem?Data loss comes because of earth obstructing the line of sight between ground station and vehicle(remember vehicle is losing altitude). Don't make such comments unless you consider all possibilities.

from:  arun
Posted on: Aug 14, 2010 at 09:35 IST

At times one has to take a few steps back in order to take a long leap.Our scientists should not get discouraged by this failure.whole nation stands firmly behind ISRO and i am sure that our next launch will be a success story.

from:  ajay
Posted on: Jul 12, 2010 at 15:49 IST

People who think vacuum and zero gravity is same thing need to go back to school.
Vacuum means no air ultra vaccum means absolutely none
Zero gravity mean no gravitational force ( a force by which earth pulls a rocket back to earth which is directly proportional to the mass of the rocket and inversely proportional to square of the distance of the rocket from earth)

See, two different things....

from:  mritunjay sharma
Posted on: Jul 10, 2010 at 00:50 IST

Failures often make one humble and this is the true strength of final achievment in any undertakings. Please don't rule out testings and more testings in strict zero gravity conditions.

from:  Dominic Selvarajoo
Posted on: May 20, 2010 at 11:49 IST

@ bhusan
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 19:16 IST

What I stated was to highlight the period of vast technical advancement. And I do know there is nothing for zero gravity training to do with. When upcoming astronauts are being trained, in the absolute/virtual space conditions., the newly designed engine could have tested in the same conditions. The testing of the engine at room temperature and on flight between 40c to -50 c does make a mammoth difference.

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Apr 19, 2010 at 22:48 IST

It's really sad that we failed so miserably.I mean this kind of launch was carried out successfully by the superpowers in 60's and with a higher payload.....although I admit they had their share of failures.

Considering the fact that we have been studying the Russian cryogenic engines for more than a decade and the amount of talk that has come out from ISRO with regard to the extensive testing they have done on this new engine,this failure is disappointing.


I am happy ISRO had done all this in the public eye and accepted its failure boldly....never mind guys you have a nation behind you for your support and I strongly believe you will have a successful launch again within a year.

from:  Rama
Posted on: Apr 19, 2010 at 05:32 IST

While appreciating the mega efforts of our scientists, I still feel there must be possiblity to test in vaccum conditions. We must have intelligence gathered from the other 5 countries who had done this successfully. Entire country's best wishes are always with you....

from:  mahadevan cv
Posted on: Apr 19, 2010 at 01:09 IST

Moderation of comments was the exact problem of GSLV development also.

from:  sajeev
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 10:25 IST

Failure is the first step of success. I believe our scientist will do better next time and make the country proud.

from:  Anil l
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 06:44 IST

If it is true that the cryogenic engine cannot be tested in vacuum conditions, then this is the biggest unknown; and I am afraid the whole situation and confidence levels in future will be rather shaky. In my experience as a scientist myself, such unknown variables can lead to unpredictable behaviors. Simulations can only help to some extent, thus making imperative that help be sought from experienced persons.

from:  Padmakumar Rao
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 04:53 IST

ISRO Scientists, Hats off to all of you, for your enourmous effort. We have confidence in you that you will come back very shortly with flying colors..

from:  M Siva
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 00:38 IST

Friendly question to Rahul regarding his comment below:

But does not the immense cost of a indigenous cryogenic engine failure of GSLV in both monetary terms and prestige in the space arena not out-weigh the cost of even 10 conventional launches to get data on outer atmospheric conditions and create an appropriate vacuum chamber?

It still seems inconceivable to me that ISRO decided to make this launch without prototype testing in simulated vacuum conditions, even if costly.

from:  Siddhartha Syam
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 00:34 IST

I've been following India's space research since I was only 6 back in 1987-88. There were back to back ASLV launch failures in those years. Since then ISRO has taken gigantic strides despite shortage of funds. The GSLV failure is no doubt disappointing, but I'm confident that they'd get it right next time. My only complaint is I thought they tried to launch this a bit too hastily.

from:  Swapnoneel Roy
Posted on: Apr 18, 2010 at 00:30 IST

Country is proud of our scientists. I believe that our scientists can do this.Indians have faith in our brilliant scientists..go on, the nation is with you, sir.

from:  praveen kumar
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 23:03 IST

I am proud of our engineers . Success and failure are part of life, I am sure next time they will succeed. We are with them.

from:  abhisek
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 22:34 IST

How can the experienced and veteran scientists miss out on such an important criteria to be met?

from:  anju
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 22:26 IST

I am sure that within a year ISRO will have a successful flight test of the GSLV with another indigenously built cryogenic engine.Best of luck for the PSLV flight due next month.

from:  Rajarshi Roy
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 21:57 IST

Hey guys even the countries like USA and Russia have failed in their first attempt at cryogenic engine tests...so I hope India will surely make it next time in near future.

from:  deepak rathee
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 20:55 IST

The failure to ignite the cryogenic engines has to be probed from all angles. It conflicts the interest of many nations.
Scientists of ISRO, we are proud of you. Next time success will surely come.

from:  Rathin Mukhopadhyay
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 20:35 IST

@Ramesh(Apr 17, 2010 at 10:47 IST)
Zero gravity training does not necessarily mean Zero vacuum conditions. Zero gravity training for astronauts are given either in neutral buoyancy pools or free falling aircraft from high altitudes.

@Others,
Its not just creating zero vacuum conditions that is difficult, its about creating exactly the same conditions of the upper atmosphere, namely very thin ionic atmosphere, temperature, high radiation from outer space apart from low gravity. It involves considerable amount of money to create such conditions on earth. For this same amount of money at least 10 launches can be made going through real upper atmospheric conditions rather than simulated environment on earth.

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 19:44 IST

There are a few points.1)It is reported in the internet (by the Russian agency) that the engine in this flight was 'non-standard'.This is a strange terminology.2)Even with Russian engine, only 2 out of 5 launches were successful(data published in the media/internet). There must be some flaw in the design3)Review and re-review normally takes place for items amenable for analysis and test.Others are left to chance.There is an urgent need to at least identify other such dark areas to anticipate such incidents in future.4)this is a difficult area and such failures are part of the game.5)Young and dynamic scientists should be inducted and given responsibility and very old people should gracefully leave the scene.6)Dummy pay-load be used till the vehicle is proved.

from:  bhusan
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 19:16 IST

i think next time it will be more better

from:  aisha
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 17:27 IST

ISRO input lot of efforts in designing and making the cryogenic engine. It is sad that the flight testing of this failed. They should consider this failure as a stepping stone for the upcoming success. When I analyze this failure there is a crucial point that is left by the media/scientists without much impotence. One can agree that the cryogenic engine is designed and flight tested for the first time and hence it failed (to ignite). But, what happened to the electronic/software system and the communication. Why does the communication link has to be lost at the end of second stage when the vehicle was not destroyed in mid-flight? From the top official's talk it is clear that the on board computer system indeed gave command to the cryogenic engine for ignition. If that fails to happen the on board computer system should register the error code. If all the electronic/software system remain healthy, irrespective of ignition failure the communication system should have worked fine and the error codes transmitted to the control center. But that is not the case, right? Communication failure has been reported. Why much impotence is not given to this? Please correct me if i am wrong! ISRO arrives to the conclusion of non-ignition of the cryogenic stage from the vehicle's trajectory curve, not from the error code(s) transmitted by the on board computer. Vehicle's trajectory curve is an indirect evidence to show the velocity drop of vehicle and hence the failure of cryogenic engine. It is not a primary evidence to conclude ignition failure because, it is possible that the cryogenic engine indeed ignited but failed to sustain the same. We really do not no that fact. We need error codes. Those are the primary conclusive evidences. I doubt ISRO really have them! I am not sure why no one (including media) is not talking about why a communication loss happened. Can anybody throw some light please...?

from:  Thiyagarajan M
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 17:20 IST

I felt very much for the failure of GSLV-D3.Can't we create a vacuum lab in the earth to create a similar situation that existed in space?

from:  Natarajan.K.
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 15:30 IST

Let us hope for the best next time. We have to keep trying while learning lessons from this failure.

from:  N.Reddy Prakash
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 13:18 IST

Testing procedure should be based on practical condition only. If we are not able to create(due to high cost involved) the practical condition(vacuum area) we have to take the theoretical calculation in to account. I think it is a blunder.

from:  veera
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 12:53 IST


Initial comment of ISRO chairman just after the launch failure of GSLV-D3 was that only vernier engines of the cryogenic stage had failed to function resulting in loss of controllability and consequent deviation in the flight path of the vehicle. However, the velocity vs range and altitude vs range data that were displayed were indicating that after the second stage separation the velocity was more or less constant while altitude was decreasing pointing to loss of both thrust and control.
Regarding the review by national expert, those who are not directly associated with the actual implementation--whatever be their expertise level-- will not be able to go with a fine sieve unless all the data is made available. And in this respect all our organizations - government or private- have a lot to learn.

from:  C. D. Thacker
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 12:53 IST

GSLV-D3 launch failure should be probed from all angles and shared with people but it certainly is not a matter, which should dishearten anybody. Our scientists have covered a long distance in different aspects of space technology and one is sure that it is a matter of time when our cryogenic technology shall give us full self sufficiency in rocket launching.

from:  Ashim Kumar Chatterjee
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 12:31 IST

I am respectful to all my great Indian scientists from ISRO. The mission was not completed, but it has made a beginning. That's the spirit.

from:  Sandeep Arote
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 12:00 IST

Failure is the pillar of success. Dear scientists, please do not mind the failure but honestly and diligently investigate the cause of failure from all angles. You will succed. But do not delay. Labour hard.

from:  markanda mishra
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 11:41 IST

Simulating vacuum conditions are created all over world to carry out various training & experimental work.
Cryogenic prototypes could have been tested in continuity of chain of events in perfectly simulated vacuum conditions.
It is beyond logical comprehension & wildest of imagination that such important juncture was left to chance & let the disaster overtake.

from:  SURINDER SHARMA
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 11:38 IST

I find it hard to believe. I cannot see any feasible reason why the
ignition of the cryogenic engine in-vacuo cannot be simulated or why that should pose an insurmountable problem for physicists and engineers of India's premier Scientific Organisation. Professor A.P.J.
Abdul Kalam is still very present - one should request him HUMBLY for
his kind opinion. After all - the Cryogenic Technology is an old hat for established members of the Space Club. Their engineers and technicians are manufacturing and using these Engines blindfolded
with confidence and security since decades whereas we have been humbled after twenty years of trial and error and uncalculated drainage of the national exchequer.

from:  P. K. Shee
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 11:35 IST

Please don't give up ISRO. The whole nation is proud of your achievements.I am sure you will get it right the next time

from:  renjith
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 11:16 IST

The fact that Indian scientists have made and tested an indigenous cryogenic engine is itself is a huge acheivement. That it did not ignite during actual flight is another matter. It will soon be corrected by our scientists. This is certain. Congradulations and keep it up.

from:  Arun John Singh
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 11:07 IST

This is the period where zero gravity training are given prior to the space travel. And the “Ignition in vacuum of the cryogenic engine could be done only in flight.” makes the comment a little bit childish.

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 10:47 IST

The ISRO Chairman K.Radhakrishnan has said that the ignition of the cryogenic engine had failed to take place in the vacuum of space. He added that such a level of vacuum cannot be simulated on the ground.This means that a vital test on the performance of the engine under ultra vacuum conditions could not be carried out. Is it ISRO's case that such simulation ia a scientific impossibility? If it is not, why ISRO could not do it? Haven't other countries who had developed and successfully used cryogenic engines done such ultra vacuum simulation and engine testing? It is difficult to believe that they would have not tested the engine's ability to fire under vacuum conditions existing in space before putting it in real time operation.

from:  K.Vijayakumar
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 10:42 IST

We are proud that it was our indigenous technology. Our ISRO team will achive success. The nation stands by them.

from:  ramachandra behera
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 10:02 IST

Really it's a disappointment. I think ISRO needs to bring an awareness among engg students about their work so that they can make them to think, work and share their hopes, thoughts.

from:  raju
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 09:47 IST

Keep up the work. Failures are stepping stones to success. Maybe a holistic approach and a bird's eye view will provide clues to a simple and fundamental error. You people cannot go drastically wrong. Cheer up. The entire country is with you.

from:  Suresh Menon
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 09:46 IST

Problems are bound to happen despite failure analysis and precaution. This should be a lesson to our nation and ISRO engineers. On the battle to space superiority our nation should work to win and emerge quickly like a phoenix out of the ashes.

from:  Vijay kirubakar Raj
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 09:43 IST

I do not understand why it is not possible to test ignition of the cryogenic engine in vacuum on the ground - in a large vacuum chamber. With so much riding on the success of the cryogenic engine, it appears to make sense to invest in an advanced vacuum chamber for testing. I assume computer simulation of the effect of a vacuum has been done.

from:  Siddhartha Syam
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 08:13 IST

Our Indian scientists can do better next time..........I am proud to be an Indian.

from:  abigodwin
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 08:13 IST

It's a big failure of our scientists but it does not mean that they cannot do this.

from:  ajay kumar mishra
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 07:03 IST

Why can't we artificially create vacuum in the lab?

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Apr 17, 2010 at 03:53 IST
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