The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has finally announced the date of its much-awaited Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon. The mission will be launched on July 15, and its lander and rover will touch down on the moon’s surface either on September 5 or 6.
The Chandrayaan-2 mission has taken a long way coming, considering that its predecessor, Chandrayaan-1, an Orbiter mission, had been sent way back in 2008. According to the original schedule, Chandrayaan-2 was to be launched in 2012 itself, but at that time it was supposed to be a collaborative mission with the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, which was to provide the lander module. The Russians, however, withdrew from the missions after their similarly-designed lander for another mission developed problems in 2011. That left ISRO to design, develop and build the lander on its own, something it has not done earlier, which has led to considerable delay from the original schedule.
A sequel to Chandrayaan-1
The Chandrayaan-1 mission, which was launched in October 2008, was ISRO’s first exploratory mission to the moon, in fact to any heavenly body in the space. That mission was designed to just orbit around the moon and make observations with the help of the instruments on board. The closest that Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft came to the moon was in an orbit 100 km from its surface.
For largely symbolic reasons, though, the Chandrayaan-1 mission did make one of its instruments, called Moon Impact Probe, or MIP, a 35-kg cube-shaped module with the Indian tricolour on all its sides, to crash-land on the moon’s surface. But that did not, apparently, just leave an Indian imprint on the moon’s surface. ISRO claims that while on its way, MIP had sent data that showed evidence for the presence of water on the moon. Unfortunately, those findings could not be published because of anomalies in calibration of the data.
The confirmation for water had come through another onboard instrument, the M3 or Moon Mineralogy Mapper, that had been put by NASA.
Chandrayaan-2 is a logical progression on Chandrayaan-1. It is a more sophisticated mission designed to pack in a whole lot of science.
India’s first lander mission
Chandrayaan-2 consists of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover, all equipped with scientific instruments to study the moon. The Orbiter would once again watch the moon from a 100-km orbit, while the Lander and Rover modules will separate and make a soft-landing on moon’s surface. ISRO has named the Lander module as Vikram, after Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of India’s space programme, and the Rover module as Pragyaan, meaning wisdom.
Once on the moon, the rover, a six-wheeled solar-powered vehicle, will detach itself from the lander, and would slowly crawl on the surface, making observations and collecting data. It will be equipped with two instruments, and its primary objective would be to study the composition of the moon’s surface near the landing site, and determine its abundance of different elements.
The 1471-kg lander, which will remain stationary after touching down, will carry three instruments that will mainly study the moon’s atmosphere. One of the instruments will also look out for seismic activity on lunar surface.
While the lander and rover are designed to work for only 14 days (1 lunar day), the Orbiter, a 2379-kg spacecraft with seven instruments on board, would remain in orbit for a year. It is equipped with different kinds of cameras to take high-resolution three-dimensional maps of the surface. It also has instruments to study the mineral composition on the moon and the lunar atmosphere, and also to assess the abundance of water.
Chandrayaan-2 to enter uncharted territory
With Chandrayaan-2, India will become only the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the moon. So far, all landings, human as well as non-human, on the moon have been in areas close to its equator. That was mainly because this area receives more sunlight that is required by the solar-powered instruments to function. Earlier this year, in January, China landed a lander and rover on the far side of the moon, the side that is not facing the earth. This was the first time that any landing had taken place on that side. The Chinese mission, Chang’e 4, was designed to function for three lunar days (three periods of two-weeks on Earth, interspersed with similar two-week periods which is lunar night), but has outlived its mission life and entered its fifth lunar night.
Chandrayaan-2 will make a landing at a site where no earlier mission has gone, near the South pole of the moon. It is a completely unexplored territory and therefore offers great scientific opportunity for the mission to see and discover something new. Incidentally, the crash-landing of the MIP from the Chandrayaan-1 mission had also happened in the same region.
The south pole of the moon holds the possibility of the presence of water, and this is one aspect that would be probed meticulously by Chandrayaan-2. In addition, this area is also supposed to have ancient rocks and craters that can offer indications of history of moon, and also contain clues to the fossil records of early solar system.
50 years after first human landed on moon
The Chandrayaan-2 mission comes very close to the 50th year of the first human landing on moon, which happened on July 20, 1969. There has been a renewed interest in sending humans to moon all over again, with the United States already having announced its intention to launch a manned mission to the moon soon.
India has announced that it will launch its first human space mission, Gaganyaan, before the year 2022. A human mission to the moon could be the next logical step forward, though no one is talking about it as yet. A successful Chandrayaan-2 and Gaganyaan would, however, no doubt set the stage for the human mission to the moon.