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India may seek international help on cryogenic engine

Posted: October 12, 2010

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PRAGUE -- India remains committed to perfecting an indigenous cryogenic upper stage for its most powerful rockets, but the leader of the country's space program is not ruling out asking for more Russian help.

File photo of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. Credit: ISRO
In the early stages of designing a new booster for communications satellites, India struck a deal with Russia to provide hydrogen-fueled rocket engines and technical know-how.

The agreement was quashed in 1992 after U.S. authorities imposed sanctions on Glavkosmos, the Russian company providing technology to India. The United States feared the transfer of missile technology from the fractured Soviet Union to developing states.

India responded by purchasing seven readymade cryogenic engines from Russia and starting the design of an indigenous upper stage from scratch.

The Russian design would become the third stage for India's first generation of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles, a medium-lift rocket tailored to haul communications spacecraft to orbits high above Earth.

The GSLV first launched in 2001. Five of the rockets blasted off with Russian third stages through 2007.

The Russian stage was blamed for two minor glitches in 2001 and 2007 that stranded payloads in slightly different orbits than planned. A liquid-fueled strap-on booster triggered a dramatic explosion shortly after a launch in 2006.

Three other GSLV flights were successful.

After a $70 million development effort, India placed its first homemade cryogenic stage on the GSLV's sixth flight in April. But the third stage failed during ignition due to an anomaly in a liquid hydrogen turbopump, dooming the rocket and its payload.

File photo of an indigenous GSLV cryogenic third stage. Credit: ISRO
Besides the new upper stage, the GSLV Mk.2 launched in April was nearly identical to previous versions of the booster.

Officials plan to fly another indigenous upper stage within a year. In the meantime, they are turning to a pair of Russian engines left over from the initial purchase nearly two decades ago.

"We ordered seven cryogenic stages," said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague. "Five have been used, and at the moment we have two stages."

The next two GSLV missions will fly with Russian stages, beginning with a launch in December to deploy the GSAT 5 communications satellite. Another GSLV will launch by the middle of 2011 with India's last Russian cryogenic engine, according to Radhakrishnan.

Earlier this year, the United States lifted sanctions levied against Glavkosmos in 1998 for weapons proliferation with Iran. The sanctions imposed for the company's partnership with India were removed in the early 1990s.

Asked whether India would consider requesting Russian assistance or purchasing more Russian engines, Radhakrishnan was non-committal.

"Let us see what we require," Radhakrishnan said. "Let us see the progress of the indigenous cryogenic upper stage."

India is also designing a cryogenic stage for the third-generation GSLV slated to debut in 2012 or 2013. The GSLV Mk.3 will be powered by a third stage consuming double the propellant of the indigenous GSLV Mk.2 engine that is now the focus of ISRO's rocket engineers.