Saturday, February 18, 2017

When An Indian Rocket Shot Up Into The Norwegian Sky

To a positively mixed outcome.

ISRO Scientists alongside RH-300 Mk.II Sounding Rocket in Norway

In 1997, 4 Scientists from Indian Space Research Organisation [ISRO] travelled to the Svalbard Rocket Range, in Norway, for a unique mission. The, then, still fledgling Antrix Corporation Ltd. had recently bagged one of its earliest export orders. Setup in 1992, to commercialise ISRO's portfolio of services, it had signed an agreement with the Norwegian Space Centre for the sale of a Rohini RH-300 Mk.II Sounding Rocket. As far as I can tell, it was Antrix's first hardware sale.

Designed to launch a 70 kg payload to an altitude of 120 km, the RH-300 would carry a Langmuir Probe on-board, to undertake Polar Ionospheric studies. The launch was also the first from the newly setup Svalbard range, signalling its inauguration. A big deal it, thus, was for all involved. More used to the tropical climes of Thumba, in Kerala, the Rocket had, therefore, to be qualified afresh for a launch from the Svalbard's perpetually ice-covered surroundings. Thus, after ensuring critical systems like its solid-fuelled Engine, Igniter, Spin Rocket & Pyros were up to the task, the Rocket was shipped off to the range, the northernmost in the world.

ISRO RH-300 Mk.II - Isbjorn-1 - Sounding Rocket in Norway

M.C. Dathan, M Raveendran, C. Subbaiah & A. Narayanankutty accompanied the Rocket to provide guidance for the mission. Madhavan Chandradathan, later, rose to become the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre [VSSC]. He, currently, is the Scientific Adviser to the Chief Minister of Kerala. At site, the Norwegians christened it Isbjørn-1, meaning Polar Bear 1. Prior to launch, the Rocket,  positioned on the launcher, was covered with a Velostat, to protect it from the harsh Polar weather, where temperatures ranged from -5 to   -20 degrees Celsius. At launch it was to tear through the Velostat's fabric, soaring upwards. Quite a sight, I'd imagine.

On November 20, 1997, the Isbjorn-1 took to the skies, reaching, however, an altitude of only 71 km. Its range, too, fell short of the designed 129 km, by 35 km. Post-launch analysis revealed that, instead of launching  the Rocket at an angle of 84 degrees, it was incorrectly aligned at 75. In addition, the Spin Rockets too failed to ignite, as electric supply to its igniter got disconnected, likely while covering the Rocket with the Velostat, they concluded.

All wasn't lost, though, it appears, as it provided some unexpected benefits. Thanks to the Rocket's longer dwell time in the lower apogee, the payload was able to gather a lot of data from that region. From those days, when India offered relatively low-tech Sounding Rocket, today, it engages in undertaking record-breaking services. Come a long way. A long way to go.