Explained: why ISRO retested its CE-20 cryogenic engine, before the next flight in 2023

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The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has successfully tested its CE-20 cryogenic engine, as part of preparations for the next launch of its heaviest rocket. This latest test comes a week after the Indian space agency placed 36 satellites from the UK-based OneWeb in low Earth orbit using its heaviest rocket LVM3. The next launch to be performed using LVM3 will be around January or February 2023, ISRO President Dr.S. Somanath told WION.

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According to ISRO, “Hot Flight Acceptance Test of CE-20 Engine is Successfully Conducted for 25s Duration at ISRO Propulsion Complex High Altitude Test Facility at Mahendragiri “. It is worth noting that the CE-20 engine flew on all five flights of the LVM3 rocket and was successful with each launch. Now the question arises why is another motor test necessary?

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The LVM3 rocket is a three-stage heavy launch vehicle developed by ISRO. The vehicle has two strap-on solid thrusters (burns solid fuel), a mid-stage liquid thruster (burns a combination of liquid fuels), and a cryogenic upper stage (burns liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen). LVM3 is designed to carry a 4-tonne class of satellites into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) or around 10 tonnes into low Earth orbit (LEO), roughly double the capacity of its predecessor, the GSLV Mk II or GSLV rocket .

The LVM3 is powered by three stages – solid, liquid and cryogenic. Solid fuel boosters are the most reliable and the technology ISRO has used the longest. Therefore, the need for testing is not as high, compared to liquid fuel and cryogenic engines which are much more complicated machines than solid fuel ones. Moreover, since the CE-20 cryogenic engine is less than ten years old, ISRO has more reason to test it.

This also highlights another fact – solid fuel rockets are meant to be fired only once and after complete combustion they must be discarded (comparable to a candle). Thus, the tested engine is discarded after the test and a new one will have to be flown on the actual rocket. Although some parts can be salvaged, refurbished, and reused, this is not commercially viable in most cases, so a solid new booster is built. However, in the case of liquid or cryogenic fueled engines, it is possible to remanufacture and reuse the engine multiple times. This means that the same engine that is tested on land at a test facility can be checked, fueled and raced. It’s the same principle that’s used to execute missions by reusable rockets, where rocket engines fly through space, land on earth, and are refurbished and reused for other launches.

See also: India: Launch of the ISRO rocket | Launch of 36 satellites on board

ISRO said: “The primary objectives of the Flight Acceptance Test were to confirm hardware integrity, evaluate subsystem performance, and tune the engine to meet mission requirement parameters for tuning the engine for in-flight operation. Analysis of the test data confirmed satisfactory performance of the engine systems. This engine will be assembled on the C25 flight stage being integrated for the LVM3 M3 vehicle”.

Given the test’s success, ISRO can now work to perform a further engine overhaul and integrate it into the cryogenic stage, which can eventually be assembled on the rocket. It should also be noted that this test is crucial.

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