Cryogenic Technology: The India Story

Seventeen years on, India still struggles to come to grips with cryogenic technology for its space programmes

Published: Jun 9, 2010 07:05:50 AM IST
Updated: Jun 9, 2010 07:40:43 AM IST
Cryogenic Technology: The India Story
Image: Reuters

India has had reasonable success in the global race for space. After the success of its moon vehicle, Chandrayaan-1, launched in October 2008, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wanted to scale new heights with its first independently developed cryogenic engine. Sadly, it was not to be.

On April 15, 2010, India launched communication satellite GSAT-4 into orbit. The Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine that was the result of 17 years of research by the brightest minds in India. The engine failed to ignite and the GSLV crashed into the Bay of Bengal.

Now cryogenics is not an easy technology to master. Cryogenic rocket engines use liquid hydrogen as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidiser. Oxygen turns liquid at minus 185 degree centigrade, and Hydrogen at minus 256 degree centigrade. The materials used must withstand extreme cold. But, the other end of the engine must withstand extreme heat — over 2,000 degrees.

India had until now (from 2001 to 2007) launched five GSLV satellites into space, all of them powered by Russian cryogenic engines. Three of them were successful. Yet, it was because of the Russians that India embarked on developing its own cryogenic technology.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Glavkosmos, the Soviet Union space agency, had agreed to transfer cryogenic engines and technology to ISRO. But very few countries have access to cryogenics and those who do, guard it zealously. The US, Europe, Japan and China are averse to sharing. The Russians of course made an exception for India. India and the USSR said cryogenic technology was strictly for non military uses. They would only be used for communication and weather satellites.

The US did not believe them. In 1991, the Bush (senior) administration invoked the Missile Technology Control Regime, an association to stop proliferation of missiles that could be used for mass destruction, to impose sanctions on the Soviet and Indian space agencies. Soon after, the Soviet Union disintegrated and the a new government under Boris Yeltsin took control. Yeltsin’s government favoured the West. In 1993 Yeltsin arrived at a compromise after he met Bill Clinton (who had taken over from Bush in January 1993) in the US. Russia would not transfer the technology, but it would sell seven cryogenic engines to India.

India decided to fight back — by developing its own cryogenic technology. Over the last 17 years, Indian scientists, most of them at ISRO’s liquid propulsion centre in Thiruvananthapuram, worked on what was termed CUSP, cryogenic upper stage project. “Cryogenic technology is not just about the engine. Each stage is like a rocket by itself,” says an ISRO official.

ISRO has said it will launch the satellite again next year. USSR started the space race by launching Sputnik in 1957, but had to wait till the mid-80s to launch a rocket powered by cryogenic propellants. “It’s not even fair to judge ISRO’s on the basis of one mission. I think they are doing a great job,” says B.N. Raghunandan, a professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Indian Institute of Science.

India has already spent 17 years on cryogenics. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for a successful launch.

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(This story appears in the 18 June, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Praveen Anand

    listen americans......we today succesfully launed a satelite using gslv d5 powerd by our own cryogenic engine......hear it properly....OUR OWN CRYOGENIC ENGINE...India can achieve u people go and scratch your head

    on Jan 5, 2014
  • Aravindan

    All complex technology can only be mastered gradually. The author says,\"India has already spent 17 years on cryogenics.Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for a successful launch.\" I say spent a 100 years if necessary on creating an indigenous cryogenic engine. It is the research that is spent on creating such technology that is needed for creating a good culture of science and technology in the country. And it is such a culture of science and technology that is the difference between a developed nation and a developing nation.

    on Oct 26, 2013
  • V.vigneshwaran

    Sir, hereafter India wont do the project regarding cryogenics?

    on Jul 19, 2011
  • Harsh Mandlekar

    ISRO is playing a key role in developement of our country.

    on Dec 20, 2010
  • Prithvi

    While it is commendable that India has the ability and the desire to purse such technologies as the cryogenic engines, it is in the end, basically reinventing the wheel. The Russians, the Americans, the Europeans and now the Japanese have developed this technology basically by drawing on technologies of each other. India's aim to enter this club should be an attempt to build a better derivative than merely reinvent a technology merely for the sake of domestic industrial capabilities. Even NASA and the Americans were eager to buy Russian cryogenic engines after the fall of the Soviet union due to their relative simplicity and robustness. Unfortunately India, didn't capitalize on this crucial moment in history to gain new technologies and capabilities to the extent the Chinese, the North Koreans and even the americans did. Failures at demonstrating a technology that has been around for nearly 50 years now, while educational to the engineers doesn't exactly help promote the Indian space program's credibility to the outside observer. And in an age where co-operation is the cornerstone to progress, image is everything.

    on Jun 18, 2010
  • ashish

    As a researcher, i well know that failure is a gold mine of knowledge. I consider ISRO lucky that the first mission failed. Very very lucky indeed. It would have been very dangerous if we succeeded in the first go.<br /> <br /> Hats off to ISRO for having the guts to take a shot at developing this technology. <br /> <br /> You are solving problems related to heat transfer, mechanical expansion, vibration and shock, all at the same time. <br /> <br /> Good.. bravo guys.<br /> <br /> Only thing I care about is Govt should compensate ISRO scientists well. They should be paid really well and an exception should be made to delink pay of scientists of critical organization such as ISRO, BARC , DRDO etc from pay of regular central govt employees.<br /> <br /> These guys need more appreciation to work happily towards reaching the goal.

    on Jun 15, 2010
  • R.Kumar

    BUT why do Indians allow themselves to be treated like S***T. CRY OH GENIC

    on Jun 12, 2010
  • Ajay Vikram Singh

    Very few new technologies - especially as complex as cryogenics - have been successful at the first launch. Failures provide insight that leads to improvement and eventually to consistently reliable operation. All major space faring nations have faced such situations, including loss of life when the first manned missions were flown in the USA and the USSR. <br /> We should have the stomach to face failure without throwing up our hands - there will be many more as we launch more moon missions, manned orbital flights, etc. The point is whether ISRO as an organisation has the ability to master new technologies and progress to increasingly complex missions - clearly it does, as its track record shows. <br /> From the humble SLV3 in the 1980s it has now flown a mission to the moon, and has set itself bigger targets. It needs the nation's encouragement, informed criticism where due (as opposed to ignorant hand-wringing) and consistent funding.

    on Jun 11, 2010
  • Ram Sharma

    None of the nations that possess this technology have 100% success rate. Even today, rockets launched by leaders of the pack, America and Russia, fail after launch and these nations have a much larger scientific industrial base. Hindustan have to be proud of its accomplishments considering limited industrial base, the restraints and technology denial regime it has operated under. This "limited success" of the engine should be a lesson learnt and keep on marching. Success always await those who are determined and unwavering to reach the destination.

    on Jun 10, 2010
  • K M Kurup

    Unlike other countries such as Russia, the US not only guards state of the art technology in every field but also is in the forefront to deny such technologies. <br /> <br /> It is so paranoid about losing its preeminent position in those fields to the extent it also exerts excessive pressure on other countries that have similar technologies not to assist India in any way.<br /> Under the circumstances, is it prudent to buy American defense products especially since it is known to put in sanctions at its whims and fancies. <br /> <br /> It is strange that it only does this to India which is a democracy whereas the US does not do anything about China which is noted for its supply of sensitive technology to Pakistan.<br /> <br /> Under the Obama regime TOT has become almost non-existent because of its insistence on making India adhere to US laws without realizing that it is dealing with a sovereign country.

    on Jun 10, 2010