Despite inclement weather, riding atop the proven Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has successfully completed the first leg of a difficult journey that will ultimately take it nearly 400,000 kilometres to the Earth’s natural satellite. For the last four decades and more, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has worked tirelessly to fulfil the dream of its founder Vikram Sarabhai, who foresaw the enormous practical benefits that could be derived by using satellites. As a result, India today designs, builds, and launches its own earth observation, weather, and communication satellites — a capability that just a handful of nations possess. The Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe marks an effort by ISRO to go beyond the Sarabhai dream — a first step in taking on the challenges of deep space exploration. The Moon’s proximity makes access relatively easy and the journey time is a matter of days, not months or years. Besides, even after half a century of lunar exploration by scores of spacecraft and a dozen humans who walked its surface, there is still much about the Moon, including its origin and early evolution, that is not well understood. The Moon may well hold hidden tales about the early history of the Solar System and of the crucial period when life emerged on the Earth.
The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft is to be gradually manoeuvred into an orbit where it will circle the Moon at a height of 100 km. After reaching that orbit, the spacecraft will release the Moon Impact Probe that will reach the lunar surface. Over the next two years, its suite of cameras and instruments, several of which have been provided by the United States and Europe, will scan the Moon and relay the data through radio signals back to the Indian Deep Space Network established near Bangalore. Mastery of this complex chain of events is vital for the more ambitious projects that ISRO has in mind. Last month, the Union Cabinet cleared the follow-on Chandrayaan-2 mission with a budget of Rs.425 crore. The joint Indo-Russian effort aims at sending a spacecraft into lunar orbit as well as putting a lander, with a robotic rover onboard, on the Moon’s surface around 2011-2012. The Indian space agency is also looking at missions to Mars, to asteroids and comets, and even one to study the Sun. At the heart of such missions of space exploration is the ability to do good science. Hopefully, the Chandrayaan-1 mission will catch the imagination of young Indian men and women who are to become tomorrow’s pool of talented scientists, the lifeblood of such programmes.
6 months ago