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India completes historic space shot

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Dec 18, 2014, 13:17 UTC, Updated Dec 18, 2014, 14:38 UTC

Sen—Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, made two big leaps in space Thursday, firing a brand-new rocket topped with a full-scale—though unmanned—crew module for the first time.

The first GSLV-Mark III launch vehicle lifted off on Dec. 18, 2014 at 03:30 UTC into a partly cloudy sky over Sriharikota Island, in the Bay of Bengal, just off the eastern coast of India. The nation's largest rocket to date was carrying a flowerpot-shaped capsule, which one day might orbit Indian astronauts. It is dubbed Crew-module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment or CARE.

A 20-minute test flight along a ballistic arc started with a pair of solid-fueled boosters and a liquid-propelled core stage of the GSLV-Mark III rocket accelerating the CARE capsule and a mockup third stage to a speed of 5.3 km per second and to an altitude of 126 km. The unmanned crew module then separated and plunged back into the Earth atmosphere for a fiery reentry ending the mission, designated LVM3 X. 

During its controlled descent, the 3.65-ton module demonstrated its ability to go through the riskiest phase of a piloted mission, including aerodynamic braking, parachute release and a splashdown. Indian coast guard vessels with ISRO engineers onboard were waiting to fish out the capsule on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal, some 180 km west of the Andamans Islands.

According to ISRO, main parachutes of the CARE module deployed successfully and the module behaved as planned during the flight.

Completing this flight, India reached a major milestone on the road to become only the fourth country in the world after Russia, US and China with human spaceflight capability. However, India's Human Space Flight (HSF) project is yet to secure the funding from its government to enable the actual piloted mission, which could carry two or three people, according to various Indian sources. Even with the money and political will, it could take from seven years to a decade before such a mission could become a reality, the Indian press said.

From the engineering standpoint, flying a prototype of the crew module was actually a secondary goal to inaugurating the GSLV-Mark III launch vehicle. According to ISRO, the main purpose of the new rocket is to bring India's payload capacity to four tons on missions to a highly sought-after geostationary transfer orbit. As a result, the emerging space power could increase its chances of elbowing a room for itself in a highly competitive market of commercial satellite launches currently dominated by Europe and Russia.

GSLV-Mark III will have to fly one or more missions to validate a hydrogen-powered third stage, which might still be a couple of years away, Indian sources said. During Thursday's test, the dummy third stage was not equipped to fire its engine.

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The Indian Coast Guard recover the CARE capsule from the ocean. Image credit: ISRO

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