INSAT 4C launch ends in failure soon after liftoff
India's newest communications satellite and the nation's largest rocket were both destroyed during a dramatic failure just moments after lifting off today. The vehicle crashed into the Bay of Bengal a few miles offshore of the launch site after disintegrating in mid-air.
The INSAT 4C satellite lifted off into cloudy skies shrouded atop a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle at 1208 GMT (8:08 a.m. EDT), or in the late afternoon at the Satish Dhawan Space Center on the island of Sriharikota on India's east coast.
Problems with the flight began soon after the launch, according to Indian news reports. The rocket began straying from the planned trajectory and officials then declared an emergency. The remnants of the GSLV and its payload plummeted into the Bay of Bengal.
"Things have gone wrong in the stage of separation (of the booster from the launch vehicle)," said Indian Space Research Organization Chairman G. Madhavan Nair. "We have to analyze the data - why it went wrong."
Nair later said the initial focus of engineers probing the disaster was on one of four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters. Pressure in one of the engines dropped to zero, and it stopped producing the required amount of thrust, according to the Press Trust of India.
The situation created asymmetrical thrust around the vehicle, which then began to tilt up to 10 degrees. This led to a destruct command from ground controllers to disable and tear apart the rocket before it threatened inhabited areas.
The first stage of the GSLV consists of a solid-fueled core designed to burn for about one minute and 47 seconds. Four strap-on boosters each carry a single Vikas engine fed by a hydrazine-derived fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. The boosters were supposed to fire for about two minutes and 29 seconds.
At that point, the entire first stage - the core motor and liquid-fueled boosters combined - was to be jettisoned from the GSLV's hypergolic second stage at an altitude of over 43 miles and a velocity of almost 6,300 miles per hour.
Officials with ISRO will immediately begin an investigation to determine the precise cause of the accident.
"Data received from the vehicle is being analyzed to pinpoint the exact reasons," ISRO said in a one-paragraph statement a few hours after the rocket was lost.
Had the flight continued on as planned, the 4,780-pound INSAT 4C satellite was to have been deployed into its targeted geostationary transfer orbit about 17 minutes after launch.
INSAT 4C was then supposed to unfurl its two solar panels and use an on-board propulsion system to guide itself into a circular geostationary orbit some 22,300 miles in altitude. The final operational location for the satellite was to have been above the Maldives at 74 degrees East longitude along the Equator.
The spacecraft carried 12 Ku-band transponders for direct-to-home broadcasting, video picture transmission, and digital satellite news gathering services. INSAT 4C was supposed to carry out a ten-year mission, and was the second member of the INSAT 4 series to be launched.
Today's launch was a turning point in India's space program because it marked the first time a heritage INSAT satellite was launched aboard a domestic Indian rocket. Other satellites in the INSAT fleet such as EDUSAT and KALPANA 1 have previously flown into space using the GSLV and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Earlier INSAT craft were delivered to their orbital perches commercially with European Ariane rockets, Delta launchers, and the space shuttle.
One additional Indian payload - INSAT 4B - is still awaiting launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket late this year or in 2007. Otherwise, ISRO officials had planned to exclusively use locally produced launchers for all of their future space missions, including INSAT satellites.
This strategy may be in doubt after today's dramatic failure, depending on the length of the investigation and what is required to fix any problems discovered. The next flight of the GSLV was scheduled to be next year.
The INSAT constellation is the largest domestic communications satellite system in the Asia-Pacific region. The fleet consists of nine operational satellites serving customers in the fields of telecommunications, meteorology, and education.
The blastoff was also the first for a GSLV from the center's new launch pad, which was inaugurated last year by a launch of the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The complex uses a clean-pad concept that integrates the rocket in an assembly building before rolling it to the launch pad shortly before liftoff.
The mission was the fourth flight of the GSLV since debuting in 2001. In addition to the solid-fueled core and Vikas-powered strap-on boosters, the second stage uses another Vikas powerplant fed by hypergolic fuel. The third stage is largely provided by Russia, and its RD-56M engine burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
Indian engineers have been hard at work developing an indigenous cryogenic upper stage to replace the Russian design flown in the first four launches of the GSLV. The upgrade will also increase payload capacity to geostationary transfer orbit by up to 25 percent to around 5,500 pounds. Engine testing for the new upper stage resulted in it receiving flight qualification, and full-up stage systems tests were planned in the next few months, ISRO said.
The inaugural launch of the new cryogenic third stage had been scheduled for the next GSLV mission in 2007.
The failure of the launch of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s much-hyped communications satellite INSAT-4C is a setback to the broadcasting companies in India, which would have otherwise benefited in delivering direct-to-home TV broadcasting.
Also, this is likely to delay the launch of some other satellites originally planned by the ISRO.
Though the blow to the DTH industry could not be estimated exactly, the broadcasting industry believes that it could delay the launch schedule of operators like Tata Sky DTH and Sun TV’s DTH platforms.
Similarly, for existing broadcasters and DTH services providers, who were planing to launch new channels and services, this could spell bad news.
India’s first heavy weight communication satellite, which was launched from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh today, would have boosted DTH and VSAT sectors with additional transmission facilities and bandwidth.
“The existing players like Doordarshan that could have migrated, would have to continue on their current satellite. The plans of DTH entrants like Sun TV would certainly get delayed until they put together arrangements for another private satellite or until the government hires another one,” said an expert.
Sun TV is believed to be depending heavily on INSAT 4-C — the heaviest satellite India has ever attempted to put in space — to roll out its DTH venture. The second entrant that could be affected is Tata Sky, the 80:20 joint venture between the Tata Group and STAR. A Tata Sky official refused to comment while Sun TV executives could not be reached for comments.
Zee TV’s Dish TV, which currently has a viewership of 1.2 million, doesn’t foresee any negative impact on its DTH business. “We have not booked any bandwidth on the satellite. We’ll continue operating through out current satellites,” said Sunil Khanna, chief executive officer, Dish TV.
INSAT-4C, which was equipped with 12 high power Ku-band transponders, was expected to provide India with a capacity primarily for direct-to-home TV broadcasting. It had a design life of 10 years.
Besides DTH, the 2.2 tonne satellite was also designed to provide services like digital satellite news gathering, digital picture transmission, meteorological imaging and services for the National Informatics Service.
“It will take not less than 2-3 months till the failure analysis committee of the ISRO delves into the data to find what exactly had led to the failure of the launch, although everything went as planned, starting from the making of the satellite to the testing of it,” said a space scientist in Bangalore on the condition of anonymity.
INSAT-4C is the second of a seven series of four satellites to be launched by the ISRO. So the delay in the launch of the satellite will definitely affect the future of these space initiatives which were to follow a successful INSAT-4C project.
ISRO, through the use of the indigenous vehicle for launching the satellite, expected to reduce the launch cost by around 40 per cent.
Although the first use of the indigenous Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle in April 2001 was a success, the failure of the launch vehicle in its second mission has no doubt put a question mark on the reliability of GSLV.
After INSAT-4C, ISRO had announced it would launch Cartosat, a remote sensing satellite in September, this year. No ISRO spokesperson was however available for comment on what would happen to the satellite launches that were said to be useful for large-scale mapping of natural resources.
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