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Indian rocket suffers catastrophic failure during launch, Earth-watching satellite lost

India's first launch of 2021 has ended in failure.

An Indian rocket carrying a new Earth-observation satellite for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) suffered a catastrophic failure shortly after launching early Thursday (Aug. 12) from the country's Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island in eastern India. The liftoff occurred at 5:43 a.m. local time in India (8:13 p.m. EDT Aug 11/0013 GMT).

The launch failure, the first for India since 2017, occurred sometime past the six-minute mark when the mission's rocket, the 12-story-tall Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, was expected to have ignited its cryogenic third stage. That third stage ignition did not happen, ISRO officials said. 

Video: Watch India's GSLV rocket lift off on ill-fated launch

An Indian GLSV rocket carrying the EOS-O3 Earth observation satellite for the Indian Space Research Organisation lifts off from Second Launch Pad of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island, India on Aug. 12, 2021. It failed to reach orbit. (Image credit: ISRO)

"Performance of first and second stages was normal. However, Cryogenic Upper Stage ignition did not happen due to technical anomaly," ISRO officials wrote in an update on Twitter. "The mission couldn't be accomplished as intended."

The launch "could not be fully accomplished" because of a "technical anomaly observed in the cryogenic stage, ISRO chair K. Sivan said in a brief televised statement after the failed mission. 

Lost with the GSLV rocket was the EOS-03 Earth observation satellite designed to be a state-of-the-art tool for ISRO to study our planet. The satellite was expected to last at least 10 years working to provide near real-time images of India, track natural disasters and other short-term events and collect data to assist agriculture and forestry by monitoring crop health, according to an ISRO mission description.

The GSLV launch failure breaks a streak of 14 successful launches for ISRO, the launch tracking site Spaceflight Now reported. It began after the the 2017 failure of a different Indian rocket, a smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, carrying a satellite for the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. That 2017 failure was the first in 20 years for India's PSLV, according to SpaceNews.

Related: India's human spaceflight plans coming together despite delays

An Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying the EOS 3 satellite rolls out to its launchpad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center ahead of a planned launch at 8:43 p.m. EDT on Aug. 11, 2021. It was Aug. 12 local time at launch. (Image credit: ISRO)

The last year has been a trying one for India's space program. 

After the launch of EOS-01 in January 2020, the country's launches were placed on hold during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resumed late that year with two missions, one each in November and December. That November launch successfully placed the EOS-01 Earth observation satellite into orbit. 

The delays from the pandemic prompted ISRO to move the launch of EOS-03 ahead of the EOS-02 mission, originally targeted to fly in March 2021, according to a report by the Indian Express news site. That mission had been rescheduled for no earlier than September and ISRO had planned to launch at least four more missions by the end of 2021, the report stated. 

All five of those missions will likely be on hold as ISRO investigates the cause of the GSLV launch failure. 

Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 12 at 7 a.m. EDT to include a statement from ISRO on the GLSV launch failure and the fact that its upper stage did not ignite.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.