Editorial: Mangayaan – A significant achievement

It has been a glorious year for the Indian Space Research Organisation. The successful launch of Mangalyaan into Mars orbit on September 24 on its maiden attempt was the crowning glory. On December 18, the space organisation followed it up with another stupendous success with the first experimental launch of a GSLV Mark III vehicle and the safe splashdown of an unmanned crew module in the Bay of Bengal off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after re-entry into the atmosphere. These two achievements best exemplify the maturing of the Indian space programme and its capability to take the country’s space missions to greater heights. The experimental flight of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III carrying a Crew module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment (CARE) as its payload is remarkable for a few reasons. Unlike Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launches, GSLV launch history has been trouble-prone. Making it all the more challenging is the fact that the GSLV Mark III vehicle is heavier, taller and more advanced than others. The rocket has the capability to put into orbit communication satellites that are as heavy as 4 tonnes — twice as heavy as the ones that are currently carried by GSLV rockets. Once the new vehicle becomes fully operational, India may well stop relying on other countries to launch satellites weighing up to 4 tonnes. The space organisation is confident of launching in two years a developmental flight of this vehicle with a fully operational cryogenic engine.

Thirty long years after Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to travel into space aboard a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, India has now come a step closer to realising its long-held dream of sending humans into space, with the successful test flight of GSLV Mark III and the safe splashdown of the unmanned crew module. The capsule performed as expected after re-entry into the atmosphere and, remarkably, decelerated to 7 metres a second before splashing into the Bay of Bengal. This is the first time India had ever tested the deployment of parachutes for deceleration. But more than understanding the re-entry characteristics of the crew module, the primary objective of the current mission was to test the new design of the rocket, particularly at the time of lift-off and passage through the atmosphere. The fact that there was little deviation from the flight path during its entire course till it reached an altitude of 126 km, was proof that the two large solid boosters fired simultaneously at take-off. Also, the vehicle withstood the atmospheric loading as it travelled through the atmosphere. Tall and heavy rockets encounter greater atmospheric loading than smaller vehicles.

Published in The Hindu on December 19, 2014