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The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) on Saturday conducted the third big test part of the ambitious development of the Gaganyaan Mission to send Indian astronauts into space.

The liquid-propelled single-stage Test Vehicle (TV-D1) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on a brief yet consequential flight carrying a homegrown system that would be crucial for the safety of the Indian astronauts – the Crew Escape System.

The test validated the motors that will be used during this mission, which included low-altitude motors, high-altitude motors, and jettisoning motors that will be put to use to safely eject astronauts away from the vehicle in case of an emergency. Isro chief S Somnath declared the mission complete and the objectives achieved.

The launch was initially halted due to an anomaly, which was corrected, and the spacecraft lifted-off at 10 a.m.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING FLIGHT?

The flight sequence began with the launch of the TV-D1. Six seconds into the flight, the fin enabling system was activated, followed by the activation of the Crew Escape System Pillbox at a speed of Mach number of 1.25, at an altitude of 11.8 km.

The High Energy Motor (HEM) then fired, propelling the vehicle further into the atmosphere.

Nearly 61.1 seconds after the launch, when the vehicle reached a Mach number of 1.21 at an altitude of 11.9 km, the Crew Escape System separated from the rocket booster. The Crew Module separated from the Crew Escape System at an altitude of 16.9 kilometers as it travels at a speed of 550 kilometers per hour. The drogue parachute is deployed next, slowing the vehicle’s descent.

“Mission Gaganyaan TV D1 Test Flight is accomplished. Crew Escape System performed as intended. Mission Gaganyaan gets off on a successful note,” Isro said.

Gaganyaan mission

WHAT IS A CREW ESCAPE SYSTEM?

The abort and crew escape systems, akin to fighter jet ejection seats, safeguard astronauts during spaceflight anomalies. Yet, in the realm of crewed rocket missions, precision and science are paramount.

This system operates automatically, triggered by computer detection of malfunctions or issues moments after liftoff, prior to rocket stage separation. While not a new concept, it’s a vital tool employed by space agencies globally for the protection of human astronauts embarking on journeys into space.

The technology ensures a critical layer of safety, swiftly ejecting the crew to minimize potential risks during the tumultuous early phases of ascent.

Gaganyaan Mission
Flight test of the Crew Escape System, part of the Gaganyaan Mission. (Photo: Isro)

WHY WAS THIS TEST LAUNCH IMPORTANT?

The launch was aimed at testing and validating the system that would be critical during the initial phase of the launch, in case of an emergency.

The Crew Escape System will be tasked with jettisoning the Crew Module with the astronauts sitting inside to a safe distance, away from the rocket if the computer detects a fatal problem. The Crew Module will then separate and splash down in the sea assisted by parachutes.

The escape system derives inspiration from other models currently deployed on Nasa and SpaceX rockets that are part of the contingency plans when astronauts are launched into space.

Gaganyaan
This system operates automatically, triggered by computer detection of malfunctions. (Photo: Isro)

Data gathered from the test will further push the development of the system to better it when astronauts jump onboard the Gaganyaan Mission.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST?

Isro had previously conducted two big tests that pushed the development process forward. These included testing the LVM-3 rocket that will be tasked with the Gaganyaan mission launch and the pad abort test of the Crew Escape System in 2018.

The pad abort test lasted 259 seconds, during which the Crew Escape System and crew module ascended skyward, arced over the Bay of Bengal, and then descended back to Earth under its parachutes, landing approximately 2.9 km from Sriharikota.

As Isro aces the test flight, India is one step closer to realising the dream of sending the first Indian to space from its own soil. The Indian space agency plans to send the first Indian astronauts, currently under training, to space by 2025 and to the Moon by 2040. 

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