India's second moon mission aimed at more than just earning bragging rights

Topics Chandrayaan-2

Isro personnel working on the orbiter vehicle of Chandrayaan-2 | Photo: PTI
India's first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, orbited the moon in 2008, but did not land there. Come July 15 and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) will launch a second mission, aimed at landing a rover on the surface of the moon, a feat that only the US, Russia and China have managed so far.  

The plan is for the 3.8-tonne Chandrayaan-2, weighing as much as eight adult elephants, to lift off from Isro's launch station Sriharikota, off the coast of Chennai, at precisely 2.51 a m. The landing of Chandrayaan-2 is expected on September 6 or 7. 

If all goes to plan, this mission will mark a string of firsts for Isro and India’s space prowess. For one, the entire module for Chandrayaan-2, consisting of a rover, an orbiter and a lander, has been designed and developed indigenously. 

All components will be able to communicate with one another. The orbiter is capable of communicating with Isro’s communication facility for interplanetary spacecraft, the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) at Byalalu, near Bengaluru, as well as the lander, which has been named Vikram (after the father of the Indian space programme Vikram A Sarabhai). 

The lander has the capability to communicate with all the components of Chandrayaan-2 and the IDSN, and it is designed to execute a soft landing on the lunar surface, another first by Isro. And the rover, which will carry out the actual exploration work on the surface of the moon, is a six-wheeled robotic vehicle weighing 27 kg called Pragyan. It can communicate with the lander alone and will carry the national flag, the Ashoka Chakra and Isro’s own logo.

The orbiter won’t directly go into the lunar orbit, but into the geo-transfer orbit (an intermediary orbit between two orbits)  first and then to the lunar orbit, covering 3.844 lakh km from earth to moon in 50 days.
The mission also marks a new chapter for industry-Isro partnership: Nearly 500 companies have contributed to developing the rocket, GSLV-MKIII, that will launch Chandrayaan-2, and another 120 companies and 15 academic institutions were involved in developing the satellite.

Given the scale and complexity of the mission, Isro Chairman K Sivan has called it the most “terrifying mission” for Isro ever. “The agency has chosen the South Pole for landing as it would be easy to land due to the flat surface and ample solar energy,” he added.

The mission life of the orbiter will be one year, while that of the lander is expected to be one lunar day, which is 14 earth days. 

With a project cost of Rs 978 crore, Chandrayaan-2 is aiming to build on the success of Chandrayaan-1. It was planned immediately after Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 but several bottlenecks (including funding) delayed it. The second mission will pick up from where the first one left. Chandrayaan-1 had found water molecules on the moon. Chandrayaan-2 will dig deeper to find traces of water or snow on the lunar surface. 

"The success of Chandryaan-2 will be sweeter as it's an indigenous effort," says Ratan Shrivastava, an aerospace and defence expert.

As with the earlier mission, this one has sparked debate on whether India needs to spend such large sums of money on space exploration when there are other more pressing needs to address. 

But the scientific community believes the intangible long-term rewards of Chandrayaan-2 are many. It will, they say, go on to inspire a whole generation and motivate young people to undertake real-life applications of science and technology, says Sivan.

The idea of undertaking an Indian scientific mission to the moon was initially mooted in a meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1999 and was later followed up by discussions in the Astronautical Society of India in 2000. The mission was unanimously recommended, especially in view of the renewed international interest in exploring the moon.

Chandrayaan-1 discovered evidence of water resources on the moon, and more research is required on the extent of water on the surface, below the surface and in the tenuous lunar exosphere to address the origin of water on the moon.

For the second mission, when it was approved in 2008, the project cost was estimated at  Rs 425 crore, excluding the launch costs and cost of the lander, which Russia had agreed to provide the lander. However, in 2013 Russia pulled out and Isro decided to build the lander itself.

“Indian scientists had to develop the lander and rover from scratch because the Russians were not coming on board. Now we have to  develop our capabilities fast for the third mission (Chandrayaan 3 or Lunar Polar Exploration) in quick succession,” said Ajey Lele, senior fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

The most critical part of a moon mission is the landing. Soft landing and deployment of the rover on the surface of the moon at a speed of 1cm per second is critical for any mission to succeed. 

The mission will let India into an exclusive club of nations that have landed a rover on the moon, but more than to any other nation, India is keen to showcase its space capabilities to China. "I don't think we are trying to demonstrate anything so much as to the US, but primarily to our immediate neighbour, China," said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, fellow and head, nuclear & space policy initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

China has already sent Changé 4, its fourth mission to the moon in 2018 with a lander sent to the far side of moon as a first-of-its-kind effort. According to NASA, China has lined up at least four more moon missions, including Lunar Sample Return Mission in 2019.

But India's mission is not just about earning bragging rights. It usually undertakes missions complementary to the missions of other space powers. Chandrayaan-2, for example, may lay the foundation for international cooperation between India and allies (such as Japan, France and the US) for expanding lunar exploration and shared aspiration of the global community for the inhabitation of the moon by humans.

Space resources mining, which countries like the US, China and Luxembourg have pioneered, is another opportunity. Russia is also beginning to give attention to it.

Considering the importance of space technology for people and security, the government has been constantly increasing the budget for Isro: Rs 10,252 crore in 2019-20, Rs 9,918 crore in 2018-19, and Rs 8,053 crore in 2017-18.

Besides contributing to scientific development, Chandrayaan-2 has also had an huge economic effect. It has come as a boost to Make-in-India effort. Of the Rs 978 crore for the project, nearly Rs 603 crore will be towards satellite development, indirectly benefiting a whole host of smaller companies that make components for satellites.

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