After 24 years, ISRO faces a small setback with the failed PSLV launch

PSLV-C39-Optimized
PSLV-C39 Liquid stage at the vehicle assembly building during vehicle integration. – Photo: ISRO

The failed PSLV attempt to launch a navigation satellite is unlikely to affect future missions.

After 39 consecutive successful launches, the Indian Space Research Organisation had almost made it appear that launching satellites was indeed child’s play when it used its workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. But the PSLV, which has been placing satellites in their respective orbits for the past 24 years, faced a setback on August 31.

The PSLV-C39 rocket carrying the eighth satellite of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) had a normal lift-off and flight events but ended in an unsuccessful mission. The heat-shield failed to separate, resulting in the satellite separation occurring within the shield. This is just the second instance when the PSLV has had an unsuccessful mission in all of its 41 launches; the first setback was back in 1993.

Over the years, the PSLV has played a pivotal role in ISRO’s programme, and this February it set a world record by launching 104 satellites in one go. With such an enviable track record, the failure of the mission this time almost comes as a surprise. This is especially so as the lift-off and the stage separation of the first and second stages, which are the most challenging parts of the mission, went off smoothly. In comparison, the heat-shield separation is a relatively minor operation which takes place once the rocket crosses an altitude of 100-110 km, and the temperature in the absence of the heat-shield will no longer damage the satellite.

The failed mission serves as a reminder that utmost care and scrutiny are required before every single launch. While scientists are working to identify the cause of the anomaly in the heat-shield separation event, the failed mission should have no impact on future launches involving the vehicle.

The failure of the mission is particularly disheartening as the IRNSS-1H satellite was jointly assembled and tested by ISRO and a Bengaluru-based private company, the first time a single private company, rather than a consortium, was involved in building a satellite. The satellite was in no way to blame for the failure of the mission. The space organisation has thrown open its doors to private companies to build as many as 18 spacecraft a year beginning mid or end-2018.

The IRNSS-1H satellite was launched as a replacement for the IRNSS-1A satellite, which became inoperational in terms of surveillance following the failure of all three atomic clocks. As only six of the seven satellites are operational, there are gaps in the navigation data sent by the IRNSS. With the failure of this mission, India will have to wait for some more time before the next mission to send a replacement for the IRNSS-1A satellite is ready.

The IRNSS was created so that the country would not need to rely on American-based GPS data — the encrypted, accurate positioning and navigation information provided by the system will make Indian military operations self-reliant.

Published in The Hindu on September 5, 2017

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