Despite setbacks, Chandrayaan 2 is a giant leap in India's lunar ambitions

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 17, 2019 15:37 hrs
Moon essentials ISRO launch

As the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the lift-off of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, India’s own lunar ambitions were temporarily put on hold as the Chandrayaan 2 rocket developed a snag before its launch. ISRO stated that a new launch window will be announced soon.

The Chandrayaan 2, was scheduled for lift off early Monday morning but a technical fault forced ISRO to cancel the launch. The fault was detected just under an hour before launch as the countdown clock was at the 56-minute mark. Reports have suggested that a leak at the cryogenic stage was the reason and launch would have endangered the rocket and the payload aboard it.

The crux of this mission is to expand on its predecessor, Chandrayaan 1. The orbiter will circle the moon for a year and its eight payloads including high resolution cameras and a spectrometer to measure the moon’s atmospheric composition. When the rocket does land on the moon eventually, India will have taken a giant leap in extra-terrestrial exploration. As ISRO operates on a shoe string budget compared to its US and Chinese counterparts, the scale and ambition of this mission cannot be underestimated. If successful, India would join an exclusive club of landing a spacecraft on the moon; the other countries being USA, Russia and China. The Times of India editorial in the wake of the cancellation, called for more broad-based tech innovation –

Unless education is unfettered in India and quality made broad-based rather than confined to a handful of elite institutions, our successes in science, including space science, will be disjointed. We need to foster greater technological innovation on the ground”.

This isn’t the first time that such a snag was detected. Former ISRO Chief K Madhavan Nair speaking on the failed launch recalled the Chandrayaan 1 mission. A similar problem occurred and once it was fixed the launch and mission were successful. The Chandrayaan 1 launched in October 2008 and made more than 3400 orbits around the moon during its 312-day operational period detecting water in vapour form on the lunar surface.

Nair expressed confidence in the ISRO scientists saying in part, “Unlike satellite launching, lunar missions are very complex in nature. However, with the accumulation of experience over the last six decades, the success rate is improving”. And he has reason to be confident. Inna first, this is the first interplanetary mission being helmed by two women who both have substantial experience in space missions; Project Director Muthayya Vanitha and Mission Director Ritu Karidhal, who will take control once the satellite is in orbit.

Muthayya Vanitha, an electronics system engineer specialises in digital signal processing and authored papers on satellite communications. She received the best women scientist award from the Astronautical Society of India and was named on of the five scientists to watch for in 2019 by the science journal Nature. Ritu Karidhal was deputy operations director on the India mars mission. In a video for Google India she said in part, “My advice to young girls is to pursue your dreams and passions without worrying about any problems. Don’t give up your dreams”.

The Chandrayaan 2 mission costs 978 crores ($142 million). To put that into context, India most ambitious space mission yet costs less than the budget for Hollywood movies like Avatar. According to a report by the International Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, China has spent more than $8 billion on its entire space programme. The argument some may make - is this a good use of money? Could this be put to better use on welfare, healthcare etc? While nearly Rs.1000 cores is a substantial amount, Vasudevan Mukunth, Science Editor at The Wire explains why ‘Poverty First, Moon Next’ isn’t the right approach –

To expect a government – any government – to end poverty before embarking on an interplanetary mission is absurd because, at the highest level, it views them as two standalone entities whereas they are not. it might be naïve to expect the government will spend Rs 978 crore on alleviating poverty if only the Chandrayaan 2 mission hadn’t hogged it”.

In May last year, China celebrated its first private rocket launch. The Company OneSpace undertook this launch. Its space ambitions aren’t secretive. Private companies are propelling China’s space programme, like LandSpace which raised $35 million from investors for a 10-tonne rocket engine currently being tested. The United States has announced the formation of a ‘space force’ and will return to crewed missions. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, in a column for The Wire explains what this means for the broader space race –

China’s rapid advances and achievements in outer space means that there is a good chance of India, Japan, Australia and the US seeking to cooperate more. Such consolidation among key Indo-Pacific powers is a clear sign of the growing discomfort in the region with China’s unilateral tendencies and approaches, not just in the space domain but in the broader strategic realm”.

So, what’s the long-term strategy for India’s space program? India plans to have its own space station by 2030. Last month, Chairman of ISRO, K. Sivan said, “We want to have a separate space station. We will launch a small module for microgravity experiments... that is our ambition”. For this to come to fruition, the first step is the Gaganyaan; India’s first manned mission scheduled for August 2022. If Gaganyaan is successful, it would be a giant leap for India.

More columns by Varun Sukumar