India rocket launch for positioning system

Indian navigation satellite implodes unexpectedly on launch

Image credit: Reuters/P. Ravikumar

The satellite, launched by the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), was intended as an addition to India’s autonomous satellite navigation system which covers the entire region and its surrounding area.

Earlier this year, it was announced that every atomic clock on board an existing satellite in the system had failed. The launch of IRNSS-1H was part of a project to replace the mostly-redundant satellite.

However, IRNSS-1H imploded ten minutes after take-off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh, southeastern India.

The satellite was being carried by India’s 'premier' rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The rocket is a pillar of India’s space programme, having launched more than 40 times. It has carried probes to the Moon and Mars, put India’s first space observatory into orbit and launched 17 foreign satellites, including for the UK.

This week’s botched launch is the most serious failure of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle since its beginnings in 1993.

“[The] satellite got separated internally but it imploded with the heat shield, in the fourth stage itself,” ISRO chairman AS Kiran Jumar told a news conference.

The heat shield, a cone-like structure at the head of the rocket, is intended to protect the satellite from the intense heat generated by air resistance during take-off. Once the satellite leaves Earth’s atmosphere and enters orbit, the heat shield – then unnecessary – is meant to fall away from the satellite.

IRNSS-1H would have been the eighth navigation satellite launched, intended to join the seven similar satellites in geostationary orbit in the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), or 'NAVIC' (NAVigation with Indian Constellation).

The system will provide real-time positioning and timing services across India and the region 1500km around it for civilian and “restricted” (military) use. IRNSS could provide accuracy of better than 10m on land and 20m in the Indian Ocean.

The system is expected to be fully operational from early 2018, but is already being used to help navigate aerial and marine routes in India, as well as in disaster management and to track vehicles around the country. In the future, ISRO aims to extend its range by increasing the number of satellites in the system from seven to 11.

With the launch of further satellites, India’s positioning system could eventually prove a serious competitor to other, long established systems, such as the US’ GPS, Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou systems.

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