July 10, 2006

High-profile India Satellite Launch Ends in Disaster

BANGALORE, India (Reuters) - India's attempts to launch its heaviest satellite failed on Monday when the rocket carrying it went into a tail-spin about a minute after blast off and disintegrated, a space official said.

Scientists at the control center were stunned into silence as they watched the rocket carrying the 2.2-tonne telecommunications satellite veering off its course after what appeared to be a textbook launch.

This was followed by a mid-air explosion with debris 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 (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. It eventually took off at 5.40 p.m. (1210 GMT).

The satellite 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, however, 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 four tonnes.

The agency is also preparing for an unmanned mission to the moon called "Chandrayaan" in 2008 in association with NASA.

On Sunday, the test-firing of India's longest-range nuclear-capable missile also failed, when the Agni III plunged into the sea after being in the air for only five minutes instead of the expected 15.