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As India launches the biggest lunar mission in the world in three decades, Pallava Bagla checks out the reflected glory

Written by Pallavabagla |
May 13, 2006 11:03:17 am

HALF-WAY into moon mission mode, in 2004, scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation were brought up short by an unusual request. President APJ Abdul Kalam wanted a 25-kg lunar impact probe added to the satellite.

Having reached for the moon, 384,403 km and five-and-a-half earthdays away, the scientists were not to be daunted by the demand. So they designed a tiny free-falling rocket that will piggyback on the Chandrayaan-I. At a command, it will detach from the satellite, hitting the lunar surface at high speed.

The hard landing has a purpose: It will, in all probability, throw up moondust, which will be analysed instantly for its chemical composition and the data beamed back to the orbiting satellite.

But that’s not all. The impactor will be carrying a flag of India, which it will plant on the lunar soil for posterity. It will make India the only country—after the US and Russia—to attempt placing its flag on the moon.

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Hitchhiker’s Guide

ALMOST 30 years after man first set foot on the moon, the Indian lunar mission promises to be one of the most intense explorations ever undertaken in space. So much so that even NASA, the American space agency, has decided to hitchhike a ride to the moon.

Last week, NASA administrator Michael Griffin formally inked an agreement with ISRO to upload two sophisticated American instruments on the Chandrayaan-I. The small step for the US proved to be a giant step for India as it opened a new chapter in Indo-US space relations, which had hit rock bottom after the nuclear explosions in 1998.

Even though the moon has been studied in some detail in the past, the race for a re-visit got a major fillip in 2004, when the US officially reiterated its plans to go moon-hopping and beyond in the near future. While scientists maintain there are many questions—including those on the true origins of the moon—waiting to be investigated, not the least of the motivations for undertaking such risky ventures is the possibility of exploiting the moon’s natural resources on a commercial basis in the future.

The Dark Side

BUT should a nation that still has more than 300 million people living below the poverty line take up such a mission? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was clear in his assessment when this correspondent put the question to him: ‘‘We have to walk on two legs to deal with the fundamental problems of development and, at the same time, set our sights sufficiently high so that we can operate on the frontiers of science and technology.

‘‘In the increasingly globalised world we live in, a base of scientific and technical knowledge has emerged as a critical determinant of the wealth and status of nations and it is that which drives us to programmes of this type.’’

India’s maiden unmanned lunar mission will be launched from atop the 44-meter, 300-tonne locally made ISRO workhorse: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Its stated goal is the investigation of the distribution of various minerals and chemical elements and a high-resolution three-dimensional mapping of the entire lunar surface.

Interestingly, the Chandrayaan-I itself will not land on the moon: The Indian payloads will map the lunar topography and conduct X-ray and gamma ray spectroscopic studies from a distance of 100 km from the moon’s surface by placing a remote sensing satellite in a polar orbit.

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