ISRO moves from building to testing its new SCE-200 semi-cryogenic engine: Here's what it can do

The indigenously-developed liquid-fuel engine that runs on greener fuel and delivers 50 percent more thrust than earlier Indian rockets.

As a 14-day long lunar night washes over the South Polar region, the Chandrayaan 2 mission is now one lander and one rover down. The Vikram lander attempted to soft-land on a flat region with the Pragyan rover inside it, but crash-landed instead. Hope to re-establish contact with the lander is not lower than ever, but the Indian Space Research Organisation has decided to shift its efforts towards testing a newly-built semi-cryogenic engine (SCE-200).

What is SCE-200?

The SCE-200 is an indigenously-developed liquid-fuel engine, that runs on liquid oxygen (LOX) propellant and a type of highly-refined kerosene, called RP-1 in a combustion chamber. This engine will change a lot for ISRO's existing launchers, particularly the GSLV. The new engine will be tested on a GSLV-Mk III by replacing its currently L110 stage (powered by the liquid-fuel-powered Vikas engine) with a semi-cryogenic SC-200 stage (powered by the new SCE-200 engine) and a 200-tonne propellant load.

The GSLV MkIII lifts off from a Sriharikota launchpad.

The GSLV MkIII lifts off from a Sriharikota launchpad. Image: ISRO

ISRO has completed the construction of the SCE-200 engine and is now ready to put the semi-cryogenic engine to the test in Ukraine, according to a Hindu BusinessLine report. The GSLV-Mk III is the heaviest launch vehicle ISRO has built to date, but it doesn't fare too well when compared with rockets in its class around the world.

(Also read: How does ISRO's GSLV Mk-III fare against some of the world's most powerful rockets?)

Chinks in the GSLV-MkIII need to be hammered out for ISRO to expand the rocket's payload capacity to space, and the SCE-200 engine is a big push towards it. When the current L110 core is replaced by the semi-cryogenic SC200 stage by 2021, the capacity to increase the GSLV's payload capacity by 50 percent, to 6 tons.

ISRO's betting on the SCE-200, and for good reason

The SCE-200 won't just power the GSLV-MkIII. Many upcoming launchers, including the Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) and the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) will depend on the SCE-200 engine. The semi-cryogenic engine, which was being developed by the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, an ISRO subsidiary, is now fully ready for testing in Ukraine, according to S Somnath, Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC).

The Indian space agency's current rocket roster. Image courtesy: ISRO

The Indian space agency's current rocket roster. Image courtesy: ISRO

The SCE-200 engine, unlike any of the presently-used rockets in India, uses kerosene instead of dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as rocket fuel — a much greener alternative considering emissions from its launches. The engine will be tested in collaboration with Ukrainian firm Yuzhmash, and once it is ready it will be used to equip future launchers of ISRO like the Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) which is currently in development.

The next generation of ISRO rockets, the ULV, will help ISRO unify their launch vehicles from the 3 currently in use: the PSLV, GSLV MK-II, and GSLV MK-III to the ULV, a single launch vehicle with many different stages from which a few can be chosen as per the payload needs. This will allow ISRO to cover a full spectrum of payload requirements with a single launch vehicle that is easy to assemble and launch.

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