Amara Raja

Chandrayaan - India’s first mission to Moon

October 22nd, 2008
India has successfully launched its first mission to the Moon - Chandrayaan.The PSLV C-11 lifted off at 6:22 AM sharp, carrying the historic payload along.

The Path of Chandrayaan

The PSLV has successfully injected the Chandrayaan into an elliptical orbit around Earth. It will shift to a ‘transfer orbit’ and will eventually be captured by the moon’s gravity field via a final thrust towards our celestial neighbour.Chandrayaan carries 11 scientific instruments including 6 from India alone. and a symbolic Indian flag which is expected to detach from the craft and land on the moon.

After launch, Chandrayaan-1 will go around the earth twice, before being fired towards the moon. The entire journey of 386,000 km will take 5.5 days. It will take another 10 days to reach lunar orbit where it will remain and continuously mapping the lunar surface and sending back valuable data 5.5 days.

India's Chandrayaan programme is "ambitious"

A moon rush is hotting up, with India, China and Japan devising substantial space exploration programmers to compete with the big players — the US and European Union. The frantic activity centered on the moon has been triggered off by two US expeditions in 1994 and 1998, which rediscovered the possibility of exploring lunar resources for national advantage. The discovery that earth’s only satellite may contain water in some form has only added to this intense interest, holding out, as it does, the possibility of human colonization.

On the positive side, interest in the moon is growing because of the renewed realisation that, as the most accessible celestial body, the moon could be a base for space research to unlock the mysteries of the solar system and provide vital scientific data.

Because the possibilities are great, the UN prepared a moon treaty, which came into force for ratifying countries in 1984, to impose regulation so that all countries would benefit from this ‘common resource’. But the ‘moon’ nations have consistently blocked any attempt at international regulation of space exploration, especially missions to the moon and other celestial bodies. None of the countries with moon programmes have ratified the treaty. The lack of regulation means that non-space countries will not benefit substantially from explorations — the principal reason for the existing players to jealously defend the status quo.

Though, at the moment, there is some degree of collaboration between some countries that have programmes in the pipeline, there is a high possibility that this will turn to competition when the stakes get bigger. For instance, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are collaborating with India on its moon programme — Chandrayaan. The US also has a broader agreement with India on collaboration in space exploration.

Path to the moon How Chandrayaan-1 will reach lunar orbit


The High Precision Success Story

Till 1999, India’s space programme was focussed on application-driven projects. Sending satellites to space with an eye to immediate benefits. But that didn’t mean that space scientists weren’t nursing the desire to explore space from more of a pure science perspective.

At an annual meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) in October 1999, a symposium was organised to discuss moon exploration, says V Adimurthy, whose team is designing the rocket for India’s proposed lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, slated to take off by 2008, at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

Planetary sciences have always been a stimulating subject. Venturing into this arena will also attract more bright students, Adimurthy says.

The possibility of finding water (in the form of ice) in the polar regions has been the trigger for the current rush in lunar exploration, says Annadurai. The presence of water could possibly help colonise the moon, an idea dropped like a hot brick in 1974 as it was found to be an exorbitant proposition. Apart from being available for drinking, water in any form can be split into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen as fuel for rockets as well as land rovers. It can result in substantial cost saving, if permanent human residence is planned. Carrying a litre of water from earth could cost a whopping US $67,000 (about Rs 30 lakh).

As a result of the past missions, including several Apollo and Luna landers, a huge amount of data, covering chemical, geophysical and geochronological aspects have been collected. The Apollo and Luna missions had also brought back nearly 380 kg of moon rock and dust, collected from nine different locations in the equatorial regions of the near side of the moon. However, scientists found the data wanting for accurate modelling of the chemical and physical evolution of the moon. The details of these chemical and physical processes, their time scales and the extent to which the moon was subjected to them have not been fully understood.

According to Nair, ISRO has always pursued space science-related activities. The first space launch undertaken by ISRO was a sounding rocket meant for studying the equatorial electrojet (the large eastward flow of electrical current in the ionosphere that occurs around noon within 5° latitude of both sides of the magnetic equator) and ionosphere. “Besides, the scientific community in India is very enthusiastic about gathering information about the lunar features, particularly the terrain and mineral composition on its own,” he added.

Nair says the Chandrayaan-1 project offers two challenges. One is technological: designing the mission without outside support. “The farthest we have gone in space is 36,000 km (the Indian communication satellites of the INSAT family are parked at geosynchronous orbits 36,000 km away). Chandrayaan-1 has to travel 384,000 km,” he says. ISRO also needs to have control over the spacecraft during its planned life of two years. This means further work on orbital control and manoeuvring the probe. ISRO is currently setting up a deep-space tracking network closer to Bangalore at a cost of Rs 100 crore for command, control and tracking operations for Chandrayaan-1 and other spacecraft India may decide to launch later.

Indian scientists have also designed and are building all scientific instruments needed by Chandrayaan-1. “It’s a great challenge to build specialised cameras and gauges like spectrometers and altimeters at a scale that is suitable to the moon probe,” says Annadurai. He adds that these sophisticated gadgets have to be at least one-tenth the size used in normal satellites because of the much larger distances involved in a lunar mission and the larger costs involved. Besides, the instruments on the orbiter have to be more reliable than those on board remote-sensing satellites, because Chandrayaan-1 won’t have any back-up.

According to Annadurai, another objective of Chandrayaan-1 will be to produce a gravity map of the moon. It is known that the moon has one-sixth of the gravity of the earth. Scientists also know that it is not uniformly distributed because it does not have a core with a strong enough gravitational pull and the lunar surface has mounds of iron-rich minerals distorting the magnetic force. “If we have to plan a landing mission or fly closer to the lunar surface in future, we need to have a precise gravity map of the moon worked out,” Annadurai says.

There was widespread support from the scientific community, despite the popular belief that the Apollo and Luna missions of the 1960s and early 1970s had gathered whatever information about the moon was needed. It was felt that an Indian mission would only “reinvent the wheel”. “This was a misconception, which got cleared because we could explain the gaps in the knowledge about the moon,” says Adimurth.
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