The failure of India’s PSLV C39 mission brings up two scary thoughts. One is about a possible cause of the failure, a mischief that may have happened prior to the launch. The other is the danger of a space junk turning into a red hot fireball and hitting the earth’s surface at hypersonic speed – capable of causing large-scale death and destruction to a densely populated area of the planet.

PSLV-C31 rocket launch of IRNSS-1E satellite
PSLV has been India’s workhorse for space launches that worked without fail for 20 years.

The failure of India’s launch rocket PSLV on its 39th mission was indeed painful. ISRO’s fabled 44-metre tall launcher that had powered 37 straight successful missions failed for the first time in 20 years to deliver a payload to the intended orbit. The navigational satellite, IRNSS 1H, could not be injected into the orbit as the fourth stage of the rocket lost altitude and the mission had to be abandoned.

There could be many explanations for the likely cause of the 320-tonne rocket’s failure. ISRO’s own analysis now in public domain is that the failure to jettison the heat shield (payload fairing of the nose cone) added to the weight that the final stage had to propel, resulting in the disastrous loss of altitude.

But the impact that this failure could have on India’s position in the multi-billion dollar space launch market is indeed worrying. India has been emerging as a major player with its much acclaimed capacity for low-cost launches. This failure comes on the heels of the previous PSLV C38’s world record-breaking achievement of orbiting 31 satellites.

PSLV C36’s heat shield is open showing the payload. 

Whatever the technical and mechanical factors involved in this disaster in the skies, the nation must now be more worried about what led to this disaster.

The possibility of an enemy regime hacking into ISRO system and tampering with the software of PSLV C39 resulting in the failure cannot be ruled out. We know that the US, Russia and China are known to practise large-scale cyber espionage.

PSLV C36’s heat shield is closed.

Or it could be some other country or other dark group that could have hacked into ISRO’s network and sabotaged the mission. The kind of cyber warfare preparations happening around the globe should alert us to such possibilities. In this age of cyber warfare it is possible that regimes inimical to India or those that have commercial interest in thwarting India’s rise as a major global player in space launch market could try to damage Indian national assets. PSLV C39 failed to inject its payload of navigational satellite IRNSS 1H into the intended orbit after a textbook-perfect take off on August 31.

The preliminary assessment that ISRO has shared with the public is that the payload fairing (nose cone heat shield) did not separate as expected, causing the last stage to lose altitude. The onboard camera showed the satellite did separate from the launch vehicle but could not be released into the orbit because the nose cone failed to split open.

The mechanical failure could have been caused by the malfunction of pyrobolts that hold the two halves of payload fairings together. These bolts are packed in a casing that has small amounts of explosive which detonates, forcing the separation of the payload fairing so that the satellite could be ejected smoothly.

Right now the nose cone of the rocket with the satellite still trapped inside is orbiting the earth at a much lower altitude than where it should have been. PSLV C39 has added three pieces of space debris. That means future space launches by all countries will have to watch for these three more pieces that can damage rockets. These junks are on orbits close to the earth’s atmosphere and there is a possibility that they will begin to deteriorate and sooner or later re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and may be burn out.

That raises the possibility of a red hot fireball hitting the earth’s surface at tremendous speed.

Hopefully, these junk pieces do burn out up there. But the possibility of larger pieces failing to fully burn out is also somewhat real. According to some experts, both the size of at least one piece of the debris and its nature reinforce such a fear. Bigger pieces may not burn out fully before reaching the planet’s surface because of their sheer mass. But in this case, there is the added possibility that the heat shield is still intact on the nose cone.

irnss 1h
The IRNSS 1H satellite before mounting on PSLV C39. The 800kg satellite is still trapped inside the unopened heat shield of the launcher.

The heat shield is made of special material that protects the rocket from the heat caused by resistance to the earth’s atmosphere. The function of the heat shield is more prominent when in the case of re-entry vehicles as the heat will be much more when they hit the atmosphere at high velocity. The payload fairing of all launchers is protected by the heat shield to prevent mechanical and thermal damage to the payload nestled inside the nose cone, even if they are not intended for a re-entry. So the danger of the heat shield remaining intact and preventing a total burn out of the debris is real. That raises the possibility of a red hot fireball hitting the earth’s surface at tremendous speed. Additionally, with the 800kg satellite still trapped inside the nose cone, this massive piece of junk will have an high chance of hitting the earth’s surface before complete burnout.

We need more experts to speak about such scary eventualities.