India Leapfrogs to Moon Club
Doing what no one has ever done before requires steely determination and ginormous aptitude. Scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation possess both in ample quantities and then some more. Over 1000 scientists worked relentlessly over the past several years on the ambitious Chandrayaan 2, a mission that promises to once again stamp India as a dominant player in space exploration. On 22nd July, a shimmering golden spacecraft roared skyward on a pillar of flame at2:43 p.m. . commonly called as Chandrayaan-2, the Bahubali spacecraft is now on its way to the moon’s south polar region, and if all goes well, its lander will touch down there in early September.
With this mission, India is aiming to become the first country ever to achieve a soft, controlled landing so close to the moon’s south pole, and just the fourth country ever to land softly on the lunar surface, joining Russia, the United States, and China.
Its scientific instruments will shed light on the moon’s mysterious interior and thin exosphere, and they will provide key details about the chemistry of the moon’s south polar region, which no superpower has attempted before.
What is Chandrayaan-2, and why is it significant?
The Chandrayaan-2 mission is the latest lunar spacecraft sent to the moon by India’s national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO. The mission aims to follow up on 2008’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, India’s first lunar spacecraft. Though the orbiter died prematurely—10 months into a two-year-mission—its data proved crucial in detecting frozen water on the moon’s surface. It also gave huge motivation to the scientists involved in that mission and also the courage to attempt the unthinkable till now.
Sriram Bhairavarasu, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a former member of the Chandrayaan-2 radar team said while talking to nationalgeographic “Chandrayaan-1 in the last decade inspired so many levels within the country, and I am one of them; I started my Ph.D. in 2009 after the mission was launched, and I was an ISRO research fellow for the next seven years. It’s a big part of me.”
Chandrayaan-2’s safe descent would add to a remarkable string of successes for ISRO’s planetary science program. When the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter(MOM) was safely landed at Mars in 2014, it made India the first country ever to successfully visit the red planet on its first attempt. ISRO’s science missions are also notable for their relatively low prices. Complex missions to other worlds regularly cost billions to build—but with a reported budget of $144 million, Chandrayaan-2 costed much lower than the science fiction film Interstellar.
The new moon mission is setting another milestone, as the first in ISRO’s history where women were at the helm of the project. Muthayya Vanitha, the mission’s project director, previously worked on Mangalyaan, and Ritu Karidhal, Chandrayaan-2’s mission director, played a major role in ensuring MOM’s successful arrival at the red planet. With an association of over three decades with ISRO, there could not have been a better choice for Project Director of Chandrayaan 2 than Vanitha Muthayya.
Vanitha has a degree in electronics and communication and a number of media reports suggest that despite all her experience, she was initially reluctant to be the Project Director of Chandrayaan 2 but was eventually persuaded. After all, her experience as a systems engineer made her the right candidate.
Karidhal has played a massive role in Chandrayaan 2’s successful launch and has had to shoulder massive responsibility to deliver on the plans. She has been quoted in previous media reports as saying that she and the entire team – irrespective of gender – have had to work extremely long hours on the Chandrayaan 2 mission over the past several years.
Karidhal is an alumnus of IISC in Bengaluru from where she completed her M.Tech. This after an M.Sc. in Physics from Lucknow University. She would join ISRO in 1997 and soon proved herself through sheer hard work.
Where and how will Chandrayaan-2 be landing?
As per a report in national geographic three previous missions, including Chandrayaan-1, sent probes careening into the lunar south pole to throw up debris clouds on impact that overhead orbiters could chemically analyze. And in 2009, operators of the Japanese orbiter Kaguya (SELENE) guided the aging spacecraft into the ground near the southern Gill crater. But Chandrayaan-2 is designed to descend in a controlled manner and operate on the surface. Unlike Chandrayaan-1, which consisted only of an orbiter, Chandrayaan-2 includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.
The report says that to help ensure a soft landing, Chandrayaan-2 isn’t making a straight shot at the moon. It will start its trek by orbiting Earth, and its onboard thrusters will progressively take the spacecraft farther away over several orbits, until it sets course for the moon. Once near the moon, Chandrayaan-2 will fire its thrusters to enter a circular lunar orbit about 62 miles above its surface.
The orbiter will then separate from its precious cargo: the 3,243-pound Vikram lander. Vikram—named after physicist Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO’s first chairman—will then autonomously brake and scan the lunar surface to detect craters and possible obstacles.
If all goes well, Vikram will touch down on the moon on September 6, alighting onto either of the landing sites between the crater Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70 degrees south. Strictly speaking, Vikram won’t be landing on the lunar south pole, but it’s by far the southernmost controlled landing ever attempted on the moon.
Soon after landing, Vikram will unfold a ramp, and Pragyaan will pop out. This 60-pound rover, named after the Sanskrit word for “wisdom,” is designed to cover a distance of 1,640 feet, powered by a 50-watt solar panel. Vikram and Pragyaan are designed to last an entire lunar day, or about two Earth weeks. Though it’s unclear whether they will survive the frigid lunar night, their orbiter companion will last for another year.
What the mission will attempt
Chandrayaan-2 is carrying 13 scientific patyloads: eight on its orbiter, three on the Vikram lander, and two on the Pragyaan rover.
The orbiter, essentially an upgraded version of Chandrayaan-1, carries a camera that can map the moon’s surface with 16-foot resolution. It also can map the surface occurrence of certain elements such as magnesium, and it will be able to detect the composition of the moon’s whisper-thin exosphere. One particular camera will provide Vikram and Pragyaan with high-resolution images of their landing site. And its radar system will be able to peer into areas of perpetual shadow within the poles’ craters. If “dirty ice” mixed with lunar soil is hiding there, Chandrayaan-2 will be able to see it.
Vikram’s payload includes a seismometer designed to detect moonquakes, and it will carry a probe to measure the density of electrons and other charged particles near the moon’s surface. The Pragyaan rover also packs a scientific punch: It will be lugging around a block of radioactive curium-244 that will spit out x-rays and high-energy particles. As this glow washes over nearby rocks, the elements within them will fluoresce, letting Pragyaan see their chemical makeup.
The mission’s overall goal is to better understand the distribution of water ice and other compounds preserved near the lunar poles, as well as the structure of the moon’s interior. Such research will help our scientistsnot only to better understanding of the origins of the moon and the solar system,but, also will help future astronauts better map potential sources of water.