Article Author: Aishani Gupta
Continuing with its policy of making India self-sufficient in space research, another major step was taken by ISRO on May 12, 2012 when it successfully tested the indigenous cryogenic engine at a special facility at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu.
In physics, cryogenics is the study of the production of very low temperature (below −150 °C, −238 °F or 123 K) and the behavior of materials at those temperatures.
Liquefied gases, such as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, are used in many cryogenic applications.
A significant use of cryogenics is cryogenic fuels. Cryogenic fuels, mainly liquid hydrogen, have been used as rocket fuels. The combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen offers the highest energy efficiency for rocket engines that need to produce large amounts of thrust. However, oxygen remains a liquid only at temperatures below minus 183 degree Celsius and hydrogen at below minus 253 degree Celsius. Building a rocket stage with an engine that runs on such propellants involves overcoming engineering challenges.
The United States was the first country to develop cryogenic rocket engines. The Centaur upper stage, with RL-10 engines, registered its first successful flight in 1963 and is still used on the Atlas V rocket. America’s early mastery of the technology paved the way for the J-2 engine, which powered the upper stages of the immensely powerful Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the Moon.
Other spacefaring nations followed. The Japanese LE-5 engine flew in 1977, the French HM-7 in 1979 and the Chinese YF-73 in 1984. The Soviet Union, first country to put a satellite and later a human in space, successfully launched a rocket with a cryogenic engine only in 1987.
ISRO recognised the importance of cryogenic technology fairly early. A rocket stage based on a cryogenic engine offered the simplest way of transforming the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), intended to carry one-tonne earth-viewing satellites, into the far more powerful GSLV that could put communications satellites into the orbit.
India’s quest for cryogenic technology
Very few countries have access to cryogenics and those who do – like the US, Europe, Japan and China, guard it keenly and are opposed to sharing. The Russians made an exception for India. Under President Mikhail Gorbachev, Glavkosmos, the Soviet Union space agency, had agreed to transfer cryogenic engines and technology to ISRO. India and the USSR had then jointly declared that cryogenic technology was strictly for non-military uses. They would only be used for communication and weather satellites.
However, the US believed that the technology may be used for military purposes as well. In 1991, the George Bush (Senior) Administration invoked the Missile Technology Control Regime, an association to stop proliferation of missiles that could be used for mass destruction, to impose sanctions on the Soviet and Indian space agencies.
Later, the Soviet Union disintegrated and a new Government under Boris Yeltsin took control of Russia. Yeltsin’s Government favoured the West. In 1993 Yeltsin arrived at a compromise after he met Bill Clinton (who had taken over from Bush in January 1993) in the US. Russia decided that his administration would not transfer the technology, but sell seven cryogenic engines to India.
India at that point of time decided to fight back — by developing its own cryogenic technology. As a matter of fact, ISRO then had no option but to develop the technology on its own. The Cryogenic Upper Stage project was launched in April 1994. Its aim was to develop a cryogenic engine and stage closely modelled on the Russian design. The Russian design involves a complicated ‘staged combustion cycle’ to increase the engine efficiency.
Success started emerging from early 2000s. In February 2000, the first indigenous cryogenic engine began to be test-fired on the ground. By December 2003, three engines had been ground-tested with reasonable success.
However, the indigenous cryogenic project has had a few failures too. On April 15, 2010, India launched communication satellite GSAT-4 into orbit. The Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine. The engine failed to ignite and the GSLV crashed into the Bay of Bengal.
Since late 2010, India has so far undertaken 4 successful ground tests of cryogenic engines. All these tests have served to fine tune the indigenous cryogenic technology and ready it for actual application.
Significance of the test and future projects
The latest test was on May 12, 2012, when India successfully tested the indigenous cryogenic engine at a special facility at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu.
This engine is significant especially because it will be used to propel the country’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) by September this year. The GSLV would undergo two more tests, including an endurance test of 1,000 seconds, at the same place in the next few months.
With successful induction of indigenous cryogenic engine in the GSLV system, India will achieve a new level of technological self dependence with respect to the Satellite launches. Such autonomy is critical for a nation as fast developing as India as satellite based communication and remote sensing cover a vast range of applications such as weather forecasts, forewarning about cyclones, forecasting the monsoon, identifying natural resources, telecommunications, broadcast technologies etc.
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