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Mar 13, 2003
India’s cryogenic engine comes of age.

India’s growing prowess in space technology is a nearly invisible, softly-softly adventure of notching up small, incremental successes on a continual basis. Yesterday the Prime Minister announced in the Parliament : “we have been able to successfully develop the cyrogenic engine on our own”. Behind that terse statement lies a trail thick with geo political intrigue, complex sciences and quiet Indians at their tasks.

India’s cryogenic engine initiative began in 1993 but when it carried out its nuclear tests in 1998, it also blew a big hole through its network of international relations in diplomacy and trade. Amidst world-wide condemnation India’s scientists were tarred with suspicion and most collaborations with them were severed.

The real reason for withholding cryogenic engine technology was however not ‘global security’ but commerce—big commerce. These engines are required to launch the geo-synchronous satellites that are used in communications. It’s a lucrative business. Russia, Europe and the US have carved out the launch market. Emergence of India as a low cost launcher would have threatened their shares.

Faced with the ostracisation, India chose to develop the engine on its own. It’s GSLV launch programme was kept on course with the essential cryogenic engines sourced from Russia. In all ten were contracted for. On April 18,2001 India bustled into the exclusive GSLV launchers’ club. It successfully launched a 1.5 tonne satellite and parked it at 36,000 km above, in lock-step with earth’s rotation. That was with a Russian engine.

At Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu, is the Liquid Propulsion System Centre [LPSC]. Here work on developing India’s own cryo engines has been quietly moving. The system involves materials working at 250 deg below zero and pumps at speeds of 40,000 rpm. There are also complex metering, monitoring, integrating technologies involved. The engines are required to fire for about 700 seconds during the final stage of a launch providing 7 tonnes of thrust.

First signs of success came on Feb 10,2002 when India ‘test-fired’ it’s home-spun engine for the first time. It ran for a few seconds. Eight months later, on Sep 14,2002 the engine had been run for 1000 seconds on the test bed. This confirmed that the Indian design was sound . And yesterday --March 12,2003-- came the news that the engine is ready for manufacture.

Only the US, Russia, China, France and Japan have had this technology so far. The next piece of news you may expect to hear is that India has switched to its own engines to power its GSLV launches. The first of such a series is slated for next year. In ten years flat, India would have internalised and commercialised an advanced technology.
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