India’s new heavy launch vehicle has performed its maiden flight, underlining the country’s ambition to raise its stakes in the global space market.
The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III, developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation, will allow the rising Asian space power to put satellites up to four tonnes in weight in orbit – almost doubling the current capability.
"The powerful launch vehicle ... will change our destiny in placing various spacecraft into communication orbits," said S Somnath, the leader of the team developing the launcher.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) also checked the working of an unmanned crew module on the vehicle, which, it hopes, will eventually allow India to fly its own astronauts, following in the footsteps of arch-rival China.
The GSL Mark III vehicle was powered by only two of its three engines during the test on Thursday as the third engine is still under development.
"We still need a heavier third engine to ensure this vehicle can be used successfully for manned missions and heavier satellite launches," said Mayank Vahia, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
The flight also helped ISRO test the vehicle's atmospheric stability and design.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ambitious plans for India’s space sector, which started in the 1960s developing sounding rockets for a missile programme.
The Indian government has increased funding for space research and development by 50 per cent over the past year to almost $1bn in a hope the country would win a bigger slice of the global satellite launch market worth $300bn. However, the absence of a more powerful rocket has so far hindered India’s progress, something that can change with the arrival of Mark III.
India has celebrated a major success this year with its Mangalyaan spacecraft that successfully reached the orbit of Mars. With Mangalyan, India made history as only the fourth country to reach Martian orbit, joining the exclusive club of the USA, Europe and Russia.
Moreover, India achieved the feat with its first attempt, unlike its predecessors and at a fraction of the budget required for a similar mission by the western space powers.