India achieves milestone: a big cryogenic engine is tested

Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) on Tuesday created a quiet bang that would soon propel India into a bigger league of nations launching satellites weighing up to five tonnes. 

In a silent operation at the Mahendragiri test facility, Isro successfully test-fired the indigenous cryogenic engine CE-20 for 645 seconds. This marks a milestone in the country's effort to develop a big cryogenic engine to fly the ambitious GSLV-Mark III by the end of 2016. 

In the absence of a proven indigenous cryogenic engine, India has been dependent on foreign space agencies like Arianne for the launch of heavy communication satellites. India's ambitious manned space programme also rests on the shoulders of GSLV-Mark III. 

A senior space scientist told that the 645-second test is a big boost since shorter duration tests did not put the engine to a complete resilience test. "This means that we will be ready for a stage test (after integrating the engine with the upper stage) in six months. If everything goes right, we should be able to fly a GSLV-Mark III by the end of next year," said the scientist. 

But there are challenges. "Soon we will have to do a high altitude test, simulating low pressure atmosphere on ground to see how the engine behaves," said the scientist. Cryogenic technology has remained a challenge for all space-faring nations because of its complexity. A cryogenic engine uses Hydrogen as fuel, stored at minus 253 degrees Celsius and liquid oxygen as oxidizer at minus 183 degrees Celsius. 

So far India's GSLVs were being powered by cryogenic engines given by Russia. Of the seven such engines, Isro has used up six. India's first attempt with an indigenous cryogenic engine was a failure. The second flight was a success, but that engine had a much lower thrust, about seven tonnes. 

"CE-20 will be our trump card," said an engineer associated with India's programme for more than 20 years. "If we can fly GSLV-MIII by next year, we will not just be self-sufficient, but also be able to rake in big monies by doing commercial launches for other countries." 

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