ONE OF the often recalled statements in the Indian space establishment is a remark by Vikram Sarabhai explaining the rationale of India’s space programme: “There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society”.
It is not clear exactly when or where Sarabhai made this remark, but for over four decades, this remained the guiding principle of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that directed all its energies at building capabilities to exploit the power of space technology for fulfilling the country’s development needs, and not exactly for doing science.
The launch of Chandrayaan-2, ISRO’s most ambitious mission till date, at 2:51 am on Monday will signal an equally unambiguous intent — that India is not just ready to compete with the advanced countries in space exploration and human missions, it is even capable of taking the lead.
The Chandrayaan-2, a moon-lander and rover mission, is designed to go where no spacecraft has gone before. There have been 28 landings on the moon so far, including the six that had humans on board, and almost all of them landed in the equatorial region. Earlier this year, China’s Chang’e-4 made a landing on the far side of the moon, the side that does not face the earth, becoming the first spacecraft to do so.
Chandrayaan-2 will land in, and investigate, the area around the south pole of the moon, an unexplored region that holds the maximum promise for presence of water as well as of fossil footprints that can reveal some information about the origins of the earth and the solar system. A successful mission can be expected to add rich new science about the moon — its topography, geology, mineralogy, and of course an assessment of availability of water. “I think Sarabhai would be tremendously proud today. ISRO has already achieved everything that he had wanted it to focus on in the initial years, and is continuing to serve the country with distinction. At the same time, it has developed capabilities not just to compete with the best in space exploration but also to lead the pack. I think he would be immensely satisfied,” said Mylswami Annadurai, the mission director of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first exploratory mission to the moon, launched in 2008.
In many ways, Chandrayaan-1 itself marked the beginning of a new age for ISRO. That was the first time that an Indian spacecraft had ventured out of the low-earth orbit, and into outer space. But even as it set out to break new ground, ISRO was a little tentative, and circumspect about the launch of Chandrayaan-1. At that time, it had said its primary objective was just to “place an unmanned spacecraft in an orbit around the moon, to conduct mineralogical and chemical mapping of lunar surface, and to upgrade the technological base in the country”.
That two instruments onboard Chandrayaan-1 would end up confirming the presence of water on the moon, something that had been speculated for close to 40 years but without ample evidence, was slightly unexpected, especially for those who liked to believe that the best that ISRO could hope for was to get into the also-ran category. It is now undisputed that the confirmation of the presence of water was the turning point in the exploration of moon, and triggered a renewed global interest in going back to the lunar surface.
The confidence it has gained from Chandrayaan-1, and the subsequent orbiter mission to Mars, Mangalyaan, has ensured that ISRO no longer appears shy of talking about its missions. Chandrayaan-2 is a science-heavy mission, carrying a total of 14 instruments distributed over the orbiter, lander and rover. And these will attempt to produce some path-breaking science — among them, an assessment of quantity of water present in polar region, an investigation into the presence of Helium-3, which is considered a crucial energy source for future permanent stations on moon, and detection of seismic activity on lunar surface. Other instruments would attempt to produce a three-dimensional topographical mapping of the lunar surface, do a detailed analysis of elemental composition of the surface, prepare a map of minerals present, and study the solar radiation.
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“We hope that Chandrayaan-2 does even better than Chandrayaan-1 in adding to our scientific knowledge. Globally, we are now in a phase where we are looking at realistic possibilities of going back to the moon with the intention of setting up some kind of permanent station. The scientific experiments by instruments onboard Chandrayaan-2 and also by all the other missions from other countries are geared towards exploring such a possibility,” Annadurai said.
Chandrayaan-2 is just one among the several missions planned over the next few years aimed purely at scientific exploration. The Gaganyaan, India’s first human mission to space, is scheduled to be launched by 2022, and a mission to explore the sun, Aditya, is planned for next year. A successful Chandrayaan-2 and Gaganyaan would inevitably lead to a human mission to the moon, though that is not announced yet. “It (human mission to moon) would be the next logical step forward. Undoubtedly. I think it would be announced at a suitable time,” Annadurai, who is now retired, said.
With Chandrayaan-2, ISRO is moving unmistakably beyond the brief given by Sarabhai, which no doubt was wisdom bound in the context of its time. But it is clearly not forgetting him. The lander that Chandrayaan-2 is carrying is aptly named ‘Vikram’. As K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of ISRO, said in a video released by the space agency, Chandrayaan-2 was the “sublime combination of the wisdom of the elders and the innovative power of the younger generation”.