India’s attempt to launch its heaviest satellite failed on Monday when the rocket carrying it went into a tailspin about a minute after blastoff and disintegrated, space officials said.
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.
Ballistic missile fails
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.
The missile launch came as President Bush is trying to push a civilian nuclear deal with India past a skeptical Congress. The deal permits India to keep making nuclear weapons, and critics say the pact could undermine the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Even though the deal does not cover missiles, The Hindu, a newspaper based in Chennai, reported Monday that Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave Indian officials the green light to conduct the test when he visited India last month. The missile test reportedly had been delayed for two years by technical issues and fears of international condemnation.
Extending missile range
India’s current crop of missiles have been largely intended to confront archrival and neighbor Pakistan. The Agni 3, by contrast, is to be India’s longest-range missile, designed to reach 1,900 miles (3,040 kilometers). That would putting China’s major cities well into range, as well as targets deep in the Middle East.
It’s also said to be capable of carrying a 200- to 300-kiloton nuclear warhead.
“This is going to help in establishing the credibility of India’s deterrent profile,” said Indian defense analyst C. Uday Bhaskar. Still, he dismissed speculation the missile was designed with China in mind.
“Any strategic capability is not aimed at any particular nation. To say it is China-specific is misleading,” Bhaskar said.
India and China have shared decades of mutual suspicion and fought a 1962 border war. But relations have warmed considerably in recent years as the two Asian giants have boosted trade and economic ties.
Efforts to become world power
India’s missile program, together with its nuclear program and drive for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, is part of its ongoing efforts to establish itself as a world power.
While past Indian missile test firings were seen attempts at saber-rattling with Pakistan, which would in turn test its own missiles, the Agni 3 test was seen as routine and intended to further India’s missile program, which aims to eventually produce a long-range ICBM.
India’s homegrown missile arsenal already includes the short-range Prithvi ballistic missile, the medium-range Akash, the anti-tank Nag and the supersonic Brahmos missile, developed jointly with Russia.
India notified Pakistan ahead of the launch, in accordance with an agreement between the two, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.
This report includes information from Reuters and The Associated Press.