India set for landmark cryogenic rocket launch

BANGALORE, India - India was set for the launch of its first domestically-powered cryogenic rocket Sunday, as Delhi bids to join an elite club of countries with the technology after a crash and a fuel leak on previous attempts.

Scientists were making final preparations for the launch of the rocket using a complex technology mastered by just a handful of countries, a top Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) official said.

The 415-tonne rocket carrying a two-tonne advanced communications satellite is set for launch from India's space centre at Sriharikota in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh at 1048 GMT, ISRO director Deviprasad Karnik said.

"Preparations for final countdown are going on normally to launch the 49-metre Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D5) with our cryogenic engine at 4:18pm," Karnik told AFP.

The mission is India's latest attempt to push further into the global market for launching commercial satellites.

It comes after India successfully lifted a spacecraft into orbit in November aimed at travelling to Mars, as the country bids to become the first Asian nation to reach the Red Planet.

Sunday's project has had to overcome several hurdles, including an aborted launch in August last year several hours before lift-off after a fuel leak was discovered in one of the rocket's engines.

The first rocket crashed into the Bay of Bengal just minutes after take-off in April 2010 after the cryogenic engines failed to ignite.

"If we succeed this time, India will join a select club of space-faring nations with indigenous cryogenic engine capability to launch above two-tonne class satellites," Karnik said.

The United States, Russia, France, Japan and China are among the countries to have successfully developed cryogenic boosters.

"The twin purpose of this launch mission is to flight test once again our own cryogenic engine and put into the geostationary orbit a heavy communication satellite," Karnik said.

It has taken ISRO scientists years to develop cryogenic motors after its bid to import the technology from Russia in 1992 failed because of opposition from the United States.

The powerful booster technology, using super-cooled liquid fuel, is designed to put heavier satellites into high orbits, about 36,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) from Earth.

"A cryogenic rocket stage is more efficient and provides more thrust for every kilogram (kg) of propellant (fuel) it burns compared to other solid and liquid fuel stages," Karnik said.

Since 2001, India has bought cryogenic engines from Russia and seven of them have been used on missions.

India first staked its claim for a share of the lucrative commercial satellite-launch market by sending an Italian satellite into orbit in 2007.

Delhi sees its low-cost space exploration programme as an achievement that underlines India's emergence as a major world economy, and many citizens take great patriotic pride in its development.