Saturday, October 11, 2008

Chandrayaan -- India Aims for the Moon

India Aims for the moon with Chandrayaan-1
October 11, 2008, New Delhi, India

By Pallava Bagla
India is finally moonstruck! Multiple missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond are on the anvil and a ringside view of this `one giant step for India’ is on offer.

The country’s maiden mission to the Moon called Chandrayaan-1 (or ‘moon craft’) is the most detailed exploratory mission to the moon in several decades. It is a truly multi-continent scientific endeavor that has been spearheaded by Indian scientists with the lunar satellite and rocket both designed and launched by the Indian Space Research Organization.
This is indeed a unique mission where tables have literally been turned, with India offering a virtual free ride to the moon to advanced countries like the USA and UK! Yes, India is not charging anything as travel ticket to its partner nations, in return the participating nations share the lunar data with India. A great barter indeed!
India’s first unmanned satellite to the moon is the cheapest lunar mission in this latest twenty first century Asian surge to the moon, with Chandrayaan-1 costing Rupees 386 crores -- almost a quarter of what the Japanese mission Kaguya costs and half the cost of the latest Chinese moon mission Chang’e-1. Despite this, the Indian mission has double the life time of all the current lunar missions.
It is indeed a pioneering project that will permanently place India’s tri-colour on the moon, with India joining a small but elite club of nations led by Russia, America and Japan that have achieved this feat. The motivation for this it seems is establishing India's presence on the moon as part of global geopolitcs all being done with an eye on sharing the spoils of lunar resources as and when they can be mined in the distant future.
Chandrayaan-1, will map the resources of the moon like never before, hoping to prepare the most detailed and complete physical map of the moon. It has five instruments from India and six from overseas partners. There are 14 countries participating in this Indian mission. Among the several other scientific objectives of Chandrayaan-1, the Indian mission offers the most detailed search for water on the moon ever attempted in history. If water is discovered on the moon it could pave the way for establsihing human colonies on the lunar surface.
Even as India gets ready for this `one small step', Indian scietists are are already preparing for the second mission to the moon called Chandrayaan-2 in which an unmanned lander and a rover will be placed on the lunar surface in 2012, this will be done in collaboration with Russia. ISRO has already expressed its willingness to go further by sending a manned mission to space by 2015 and landing an Indian on the moon using Indian rockets by about2025. India is also preparing for missions to explore Mars, the Sun and an asteroid.
Fabled in songs, poetry and films the Earth’s closest neighbor, the Moon is still an enigma, mostly hidden from view. Despite the fact that about a dozen men have visited the moon till date yet, little is really known about its origin and what it is composed of. Does it contain life giving water on the lunar poles? To unravel some of these mysteries Chandrayaan-1, an unmanned satellite mission to the moon, will be shot into space on board India’s trusted rocket the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, with the 400,000 kilometer distance to the moon to be covered in several days.
Coming at the very end of the sixth decade of India’s Independence, the country is reaching for the skies, and in more ways than one. As the country gets propelled towards new adventures in space, a whole generation of Indians will experience first-hand the incredulous science and thrill of exploration of the Moon.
The Moon has always held pride of place in the human ethos – across diverse communities, nations, cultures and faiths. It has also held secrets and mysteries, with experts of planetary science and space seeking answers about its true origin and evolution, the presence of water and the possibility of exploiting natural resources on the moon on a commercial basis in times to come.
India is no stranger to human civilization’s unending quest for knowledge and this latest programme will place the country squarely in the galaxy of scientifically advanced nations that seek to answer the unanswered, search unexplored frontiers and tirelessly work to keep the flame burning, shedding its light in the dark unknown. In the past, lunar missions have succeeded in galvanizing entire nations and igniting collective psyches, and the Indian mission is no different. India's moon yatra has truly begun!
Pallava Bagla
(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for NDTV and Chief Correspondent (Soutrh Asia) for Science.