ISRO’s EOS-3 satellite launch on GSLV Mk2 rocket fails 350 seconds after launch

Written By: Sidharth MP WION
New Delhi, India Published: Aug 12, 2021, 07:30 AM(IST)

ISRO’s EOS-3 satellite launch on GSLV Mk2 Rocket Photograph:( Twitter )

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This is the fourth failure of the GSLV Mk2 variant of ISRO (which can lift about 2.5 tons to space). The earlier failures were in July 2006, April 2010 and December 2010.

As seen on the official broadcast, ISRO’s highly-anticipated launch of Earth observation satellite -3 or GISAT-1 failed after the rocket entered the lower reaches of space (an altitude of 139kms).

After a flight of nearly 350seconds (5 minutes 40 seconds), the rocket went off course while in space.

As per the official ISRO-Doordarshan broadcast, the first two stages of the rocket (that give initial thrust for lift-off and later carry the 52-meter tall vehicle to space) performed as expected.

However, shortly after the rocket switched over to its final stage - the Cryogenic engine (that burns liquid hydrogen and oxygen), there was a marked deviation in its planned flight path.

A typical rocket consists of two or more stages, each of which would have its own engines(either single or grouped in a cluster).

Simply put, a rocket is a combination of multiple engines(stages) that are vertically stacked. 

The rocket blasted off from the second launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 5:43am, as scheduled.

The flight of the rocket was also visible (amid cloudy skies) from the Southern Indian metropolis of Chennai, that is south of Sriharikota. 

As per what was shown on the live broadcast, it was after roughly 350 seconds of flight, when the payload fairing (the nose cone or protective shield that houses the satellite) and the rocket had switched over to its Cryogenic engine, that the rocket’s path deviated from the planned one. 

Several minutes of anxiety and stunned silence followed at ISRO’s Mission Control in Sriharikota and the Live  commentary on the National broadcaster Doordarshan’s telecast had been stopped.

Top ISRO officials and scientists at the mission control were also seen discussing urgently, while several others had already gotten off their seats, something that is done usually after mission is accomplished successfully. 

While this indicated something was amiss, Dr Sivan, Chairman, ISRO, later confirmed the news at the end of the Doordarshan broadcast.

“Mission could not be accomplished fully because there was a technical anomaly observed in the cryogenic stage”. 

As per ISRO’s plan, the cryogenic engine- the stage that faced an anomaly-  was supposed to perform from 4 minutes and 56seconds until 18minutes and 29seconds (entire duration in space).

Had this sequence of engine performance been successful, the EOS-3 satellite would have been ejected into space at 18 minutes and 39 seconds after its launch from earth. But that process was hit by a glitch sometime around 5 minutes and 40 seconds.

At 7 am, nearly an hour after the failed launch, ISRO’s official Twitter handle said “Performance of first and second stages was normal. However, Cryogenic Upper Stage Ignition did not happen due to technical anomaly. The mission could not be accomplished as intended.” 

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This is the fourth failure of the GSLV Mk2 variant of ISRO, which can lift about 2.5 tonnes to space.

The earlier failures were in July 2006, April 2010 and December 2010.

This was the second launch for ISRO in calendar year 2021, the earlier one being a PSLV launch in late February.

ISRO’s missions and crucial work had been affected during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck the country between March and June.

However, it is also notable that this was the third launch attempt of this satellite - the first two attempts in March 2020 and March 2021 were called off. 

According to ISRO, GISAT-1 or EOS-3 was meant to provide near-real-time imaging of large region of interest at frequent intervals, quick monitoring of natural disasters, episodic events, and also obtain spectral signatures for agriculture, forestry, mineralogy, disaster warning, cloud properties, snow& glaciers, and oceanography. 

EOS-3, an agile earth observation satellite was meant to be placed in Geostationary orbit, 36,000kms from earth’s equator.

This orbit is typically meant for communication satellites that have to cover a large swathe of land. A satellite in geostationary orbit would be in sync with the rotation cycle of the earth (24 hours) and it would appear to be stationary when seen from the earth, thus giving it the name.

It is said that three aptly positioned Geostationary satellites can cover pretty much all of Earth’s surface.

Conventionally, such earth-observation satellites are placed in low-earth orbit (between 500 and 2000 km, to ensure high-resolution imagery, better capabilities.

However, it is pertinent to note that ISRO’s latest agile earth-observation satellite is to be placed 36,000kms away from the earth’s surface. Being placed in the 36,000km circular orbit would also mean that the 2268kg GISAT-1 is beyond the range of Anti-satellite missiles. 

This failure is a setback for the Indian Space Research Organisation, which faced serious disruption inactivity owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and a subsequent delay of prestigious missions.

It is important to note that Cryogenic engines are a crucial part of advanced spaceflight missions that require heavy loads to be carried to space. India is also working on Gaganyaan, an ambitious human spaceflight mission involving Indian astronauts.

The failure of the EOS-3 mission would imply that ISRO has to further study and analyze its cryogenic engines, for reliable performance. Amid the uncertainty looming over the third wave of the pandemic, ISRO would also have to allocate time, manpower, and financial resources to build another GSLV Mk2 rocket and a replacement for the lost EOS-3 satellite.

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