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ISRO forced to destroy GSLV in mid airnews
11 July 2006
ISRO officials were forced to destruct the GSLV F02 to prevent populated areas from being hit by the rocket debris falling from the sky. Venkatchari Jagannathan reports. Venkatchari Jagannathan reports.

Chennai: For the first time in its history Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) destroyed its satellite-carrying rocket mid air.

This happened on July 10, 2006, when the second operational flight of the geo synchronous launch vehicle F 02 (GSLV F02) did a mid air somersault and veered away from its flight path. The rocket was carrying the 2,168kg-Insat 4C communication satellite.

"We had to destroy the rocket to avoid the risk of the vehicle / debris falling on the nearby populated areas," said ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair.

The GSLV F 02 mission was touted as the historic one. It was the first time an Insat satellite was launched from Indian soil using an Indian rocket. All the previous Insat satellites were launched using the European / American launch vehicles. Moreover, Insat 4C was the heaviest satellite to be carried by the GSLV F 02.

But the omens were not good. Originally the blast-off was scheduled for 4:00pm, which was postponed to 4:37 pm. It was further delayed as one of the valves did not close after the fuel was filled in the cryogenic stage. Finally, GSLV F02 blasted-off from the second launch pad at 5:38 pm.

For journalists and ISRO officials gathered on the terrace of the Satish Dawan Space Centre (SDSC), Sriharikota, to watch the take-off, the flight initially seemed normal as they cheered as the rocket went up.

The Rs160-crore GSLV F02 with its long, thick tongue of orange flame at its tail, steadily gathered momentum piercing the dark clouds and journeyed towards the heavens. Its mission was to sling the Rs96-crore Insat 4C at the geo synchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

A ball of fire and a pall of gloom
Within seconds the onlookers realised that something was terribly amiss. They could see burning debris falling. Three huge pieces - probably the strap on motors - came down separately with a thick trail of smoke behind. Soon after that a huge ball of flame was seen in the sky, though the dark clouds covered a major portion of it.

People who were in the media hall watching Doordharshan's live telecast saw the rocket somersault away from its charted path. The vehicle's normal inclination is supposed to be about 4 degrees but it went to 10 degrees or more.

Sitting in the mission control room, Nair made the initial announcement, "There seems to be a mishap in the first stage. Things have gone wrong. We have to analyse the data and see the sequence."

According to him, the lift-off was normal and for the initial 40-45 seconds the vehicle was under control. But the thrust pressure in one of the four strap-on motors fell to zero soon after the lift-off, causing the vehicle to lose its balance and veer out of control.

To avoid any human tragedy due to the falling debris in residential areas, the decision to destroy the 49-metre tall, 414-tonne GSLV F02 was taken within seconds. The range safety officer at SDSC pressed the "destroy" button that turned the rocket and the satellite in to a huge ball of flame while a pall of gloom descended at SDSC.

The cause of GSLV's failure has an interesting coincidence. On July 9, 2006, the Agni III Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for 3,500km, fell into the Bay of Bengal as it developed a problem in the first stage itself.

While not ruling out sabotage in the GSLV's failure, Nair said, "We have to analyse the data up till the last 60 seconds. The lift-off video will be analysed in detail. I am sure we will pin-point the fault." The data analysis has started at the mission control facility.

It should also be noted that the first flight of GSLV was aborted on March 28, 2001, as one of the strap-on motors did not develop the required thrust. It was then established that the fault was in the defective plumbing in the oxidiser flow-line.

In its current configuration ISRO's second launch vehicle GSLV (the first being the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-PSLV) is a three-stage vehicle. The first stage comprises a core motor with 138 tonnes of solid propellant and four strap-on motors each with 42 tonnes of hypergolic liquid propellants (UH25 and N2O4). The second-stage has 39 tonnes of same hypergolic liquid propellants. The third-stage is a cryogenic stage with 12.6 tonnes of liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2).

Scientific, not commercial set back
The failure of the two missions-GSLV and Agni III- is a scientific set back for the country. However, Nair said that the mission failure would not impact ISRO's commercial operations.

The setback for ISRO comes at a time when the country's space agency is finding its feet in the global satellite launch industry. It has carried a couple of third-party satellites for a price but as a piggyback to its own. Last year, Antric Corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO, earned around Rs300 crore from launch and other services.

"It is not a big set back. Such launch failures are common all over the world. We have successfully launched GSLV thrice before this," Nair consoled the scientists and visitors.

Till date ISRO has 11 successful launches to its credit. "The present mission's failure is due to one of the rarest causes. The failure of GSLV F02 would not have any impact on the development of GSLV Mark III - the heavier version of the launch vehicle that would carry a 4-tonne payload.

According to him, ISRO will renegotiate with those who had booked Insat 4C transponders and provide alternate options like offering transponders in Insat 4B. As on date ISRO has 20-standby transponders out of the 175 it owns.

"The launch of Insat 4B will now be speeded up." The proposed satellite will be launched by Ariane from Kourou sometime next year would have 12 Ku-band transponders and 12 C-band transponders.

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ISRO forced to destroy GSLV in mid air