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India to launch astronaut capsule, big rocket

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Dec 14, 2014, 17:19 UTC

Sen—Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, prepares to make two big leaps in space in a single shot this week, firing a brand-new rocket topped with a full-scale—though unmanned—crew module for the first time.

The maiden launch of the 630-ton GSLV-Mark III launch vehicle is expected to take place on 18 December at Sriharikota Island, in the Bay of Bengal, just of the eastern coast of India, ISRO announced Friday. The nation's largest rocket to date will be carrying a flowerpot-shaped capsule, which one day might orbit Indian astronauts. It is dubbed Crew-module Atmospheric Reentry Experiment or CARE.

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

During its controlled descent, the 3.65-ton module should demonstrate 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 will be waiting to fish out the capsule on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal, some 180 kilometers west of the Andamans Islands.

If successful, India will reach 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.

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The GSLV-Mark III launcher with its CARE capsule stands ready on the pad at Sriharikota Island. The mission is designated LVM3 X. Image credit: ISRO

From the engineering standpoint, flying a prototype of the crew module is actually a secondary goal to inaugurating the GSLV-Mark III launch vehicle. According to ISRO, the main purpose of the new rocket will be bringing 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 the upcoming flight, the dummy third stage will not fire its engine.

In any case, the success of the first GSLV-Mark III rocket and the CARE capsule will triple India's impressive space achievements this year, after the nation's scientific probe built on a shoe-string budget joined American and European spacecraft in the orbit of Mars.