Chandrayaan-3: Small step to the moon, a giant leap for India’s space journey
The success of Chandrayaan-3 will send a message to young people across the country that it is possible to do quality scientific research, and make a difference, here, on Indian soil.
Chandrayaan-3 is now well on its way to the moon. It is to be a 42-day odyssey. The spacecraft is in an elliptical orbit, going as far as 41,762 km from Earth and coming as close as 173 km. This height will increase to about 220 km in the next few days, conducting various tests and calibrations, before it is transferred, free from the Earth, to be captured in orbit around the moon (translunar injection) a few days later. This orbit will gradually shrink, bringing the spacecraft closer and closer to the moon. Finally, it will attempt a soft landing at a location near the South Pole of the moon, from a circular orbit of about 100 km from the surface.
Even though everyone is focused on the final procedure of the soft landing, it is the journey before that is fraught with difficulties, much like Ulysses’ path to Ithaca. All of that will keep us on tenterhooks till August 23.
Anybody who wanted to, saw for the first time, on widely available channels on community screens, television sets and mobile phones, the process of a launch in great detail. In the first hair-raising period of 1,000 seconds, everything went as expected. The liquid core ignited, which took the spacecraft to a higher orbit. Finally, the novel cryogenic engine, which used solid hydrogen and oxygen at temperatures of -200 degree Celsius, propelled the spacecraft to a higher orbit, before the satellite separated.
There was a cheer from thousands of school kids at Sriharikota, which echoed across school grounds, marketplaces, community spaces, and households across the country. It was as though the national team had won a crucial cricket match. This is what made this launch different. Since the pandemic, access to digital media, online discussions and news dissemination has become widespread. Everybody watched, and they cheered.
In 1957, as the Russians launched Sputnik, Vikram Sarabhai, who laid the groundwork for India’s space programme, leading to the establishment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
The significance of Chandrayaan-3 for the Indian space programme is immense. The mission is a major step forward in India’s lunar exploration programme, and it is sure to make significant contributions to our understanding of the moon. Perhaps more importantly, it will showcase India’s capabilities and build its reputation in the global space community, which will help attract more investment in the country’s space industry.
One is painfully aware that the private sector in India, despite being capable, is engaged in only a tiny fraction of the space enterprise in the international industrial sector, currently valued at about $500 billion. This has to change, and the Indian industry must become a major global player.
The government’s newly-unveiled Space Policy 2023 states that India’s space programme should “enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space”. Chandrayaan-3 is a clear example of how India’s space programme is helping achieve this goal.
The mission is a joint project between ISRO and the Indian private sector. This is the first time that India has partnered with the private sector on a major space mission, and it demonstrates the government’s commitment to the new Space Policy. The lander and rover that will be deployed on the Moon were developed by a consortium of Indian companies in collaboration with ISRO laboratories. The mission’s ground control systems were also developed by ISRO with the help of the industry, and much of the mission’s data will be processed and analysed by the private sector.
India is now a signatory to the Artemis Accords, an agreement with the other leading Space Agencies of the world – NASA (US), ESA (Europe), JAXA (Japan) and the CSA (Canada) — for moon exploration with a view to colonise it. If Chandrayaan-3 can lead the way in this challenging region, future Artemis astronauts, based on ISRO’s pioneering work, will be able to collect core samples and volatiles from these regions. This could have a profound impact on the future of deep space exploration and eventual commercial activities.
India’s scientists are now taking part in a few frontline worldwide projects that are pushing technological boundaries. India has dealt with hardware and software challenges in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, in collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and in the preliminary stages of the recently-approved Laser Interferometric Gravitational Wave Observatory in India (LIGO-India) and the Square Kilometre Array in Radio Astronomy. The technological achievements in the astrophysics and space sectors are now for the world to see.
As an astrophysicist, I am very excited by the expected scientific outcomes of this project. The moon and earth were formed at the same time from the same materials. Understanding the formation and composition of the moon will go a long way in understanding how our planet was formed.
Of the three countries that have successfully landed either humans or instruments on the moon (the US, erstwhile USSR, China), none have ventured far into its southern hemisphere. The lander will land at a latitude of 70 degrees south, pretty close to the South Pole. Why is this momentous?
There are many geographical variations on the surface of the moon, and many are worth exploring. The southern hemisphere has many high mountains, and deep craters, which are more extreme in nature than those in the north. These block sunlight, and so, there are large areas of permanently shadowed regions near the poles, where temperatures can go down to -200 degrees Celsius. These are home to volatiles, which are chemical elements or compounds that melt or vaporise at moderately warm temperatures. This includes water, which, we suspect, exists in large quantities in supercooled ice form. These volatile substances could provide valuable insights into the history of the solar system.
People often ask me whether a poor country like India can afford to spend Rs 600 crore on a mission to the moon. The amount is less than the budget of some major movies and one-fifth the price of a single Boeing-747 aircraft. It’s not so expensive, and it opens up collateral possibilities for the country and local industry to earn far more in associated projects.
Not least important is that missions such as Chandrayaan-3 will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. It was so wonderful to see the beaming faces of the youngsters at the launch, at our campus, and on the streets. The success of Chandrayaan-3 will send a message to young people across the country that it is possible to do quality scientific research, and make a difference, here, on Indian soil.
Writer: Mr. Somak Raychaudhury is an Astrophysicist and Vice-Chancellor, Ashoka University, Haryana