Monday, July 10, 2006

India’s attempt to launch its heaviest satellite failed when the rocket carrying it went into a tailspin and disintegrated


Scientists at the control center were stunned into silence as they watched the rocket carrying the 2.2-ton telecommunications satellite veering off its course after what appeared to be a textbook launch. This was followed by a midair explosion, with debris from the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle seen falling into the sea off the country’s southeastern coast.

“The mishap happened in the first stage of separation,” said Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO. “We will analyze the data to see the sequence of events.”

The rocket launch, from Sriharikota launch site in the Bay of Bengal, was deferred twice during the day due to technical problems.

The satellite, named Insat-4C, was designed for a mission life of 10 years and was aimed at boosting television services, officials said. If the launch had been successful, it would have given India a chance to take a slice of the $2 billion global satellite launch market. India had planned to offer to launch satellites at a third of the cost offered by the United States, Europe or Russia.

Experts played down the failed launch.

“It is not a setback. It is certainly a disappointment,” former ISRO chief U.R. Rao told Reuters. “It is a good rocket and it has proved itself in three previous launches.”

The Indian space agency is investing $543 million to upgrade infrastructure for launching heavier rockets to carry satellites weighing up to 4 tons. The agency is also preparing for an unmanned mission to the moon called Chandrayaan in 2008, in association with NASA.

On Sunday, the test firing of India’s longest-range nuclear-capable missile also failed, when the Agni 3 plunged into the sea after being in the air for only five minutes instead of the expected 15.

Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who witnessed Sunday’s missile launch, said India would press ahead with the Agni 3 program. He termed the failure a snag, but offered no other details. Indian media reported that the missile’s second stage failed to separate after it was launched from Wheeler Island off the eastern state of Orissa.

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