Oct 18, 2008

India - Pie in the Sky (V.G.Read)

Bibhu Ranjan Mishra & Praveen Bose

At dawn on October 22, a thousand staid scientists, all with alphabet soups of academic qualifications, will be braced to break out the bubbly. India’s first moon mission, Chandrayaan-1

(C-1) is scheduled to launch about 10 minutes after sunrise from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, on the little peninsula of Sriharikota, India’s spaceport on the Bay of Bengal.

Chandrayaan is the latest validation of India’s space programme which had its origins in 1963 when Vikram Sara-bhai laid the foundation for what has become one of the greatest success stories of India.

While India has put satellites galore into space, ISRO’s experience is thus far limited to operating assets at a distance of about 40,000 km. A moon mission is a whole new ball-game. It involves managing complex equipment at a distance of 400,000 km — enough to cause over a second’s lag each way in the radio signals that control those systems.

The sylvan green of Sriharikota with its vast acres of mangrove swamps and its winter arrivals of flamingos and other migratory birds is a charming, if apparently incongruous, setting for a high-tech space centre. However, although the 1,000-odd scientists and technicians camped there claim their surroundings help them relax, the location was chosen for hard-headed, practical reasons.

There is always an element of uncertainty in a rocket launch. If it fails here, it will land in the sea. In case of deviations from the proposed path or other malfunctions, the launch vehicle can be blown up. “Once the vehicle lifts off, nothing can be done. We won’t simply destroy because of a marginal deviation or malfunction. We destroy it only when there is a chance of it causing catastrophic damage,” says

V Krishnamurthy, general manager (safety) of the mission.

However, C-I is unlikely to fail — at launch at least. The PSLV is tried and tested, it has put 12 payloads into space. The objective of C-1 is to put a 1.5 metre cube into orbit, about 100 km above the lunar surface, for two years. Various experiments will be run and data of all sorts acquired. The unmanned, 11-payload mission also incorporates a moon impact probe that will crash into the moon itself and drop a tricolour on the surface, staking India’s claims to the moon.

The making of C-1 has involved very complex systems integration. The mission head of the project, M Annadurai, has had his fingers crossed since July 21 when the integration of the launch vehicle started. His team is “charged-up”. “People from the lowest to the top level are working round the clock with great excitement. All of them are self-motivated and don’t need to be set a target. We have not seen this kind of team spirit with any other project in the past,” says M C Dathan, director, Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR.

At a distance of 384,000 km, the moon is the most visited celestial body. A few dozen manned and unmanned missions have been undertaken by Russia (then the USSR), USA, China and Japan. Russia and the US have landed robotic spacecraft on the moon; the US has landed astronauts as well. But no man has walked on the moon for over 30 years.

In May 1999, Atal Behari Vajpayee evaded the question of a possible moon mission while he was watching the launch of PSLV-C2. He took refuge in poetry, saying, “When man reached the moon, he did not find anything beautiful there.” ISRO did eventually get clearance for the missions and, at Vajpayee’s behest, it was named Chandrayaan. The numeric “1” suggests that it is the first of several missions and indeed C-2 is already in the pipeline.

C-1 is an exercise in developing technical expertise for ISRO as well as in global scientific cooperation. It carries six payloads and experiments devised and contributed by UK, Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and the US (two payloads), apart from five designed by Indian scientists. If all work, it will send back enough data to generate 3-D maps, check for the presence of water and other chemicals and minerals, assess background radiation levels, measure the (tenuous) lunar atmosphere, study solar wind interaction, et cetera.

It will acquire unprecedented amounts of data and answer many questions about the evolution of earth’s mysterious satellite. “In spite of several missions to the moon, the origin of the moon is not fully understood. The theory that the moon originated due to a catastrophic collision of the earth with a Mars-sized body over 3 billion years ago is unproven. In this context, the data collection about the lunar surface and its chemical composition by C-1 may provide us insights into its origin,” says

G Madhavan Nair, chairman, ISRO. With luck, it will also throw up more questions that later missions can attempt to answer.

“The present unmanned mission from India is unique. Most moon missions so far have tried to unravel one side of the moon. We are now concentrating on the polar orbit, and wish to prepare a three-dimensional atlas which is unique and will help in mapping the topography,” says V K Srivastava, a senior scientist working with the project.

The moon impact probe aims at providing ISRO with technologies for future soft landings including possibly manned missions. Another target is to investigate the abundance of Helium-3, which is vital for fusion energy generation experiments. He-3 is very rare on earth and supposedly present in much larger quantities on the moon. While it may not be cost-effective in energy terms to mine it, its presence would spark new interest in lunar resources. “The moon has 2-3 million tonnes of Helium-3. This would be enough to produce energy for us on earth for about 8,000 years,” says U R Rao, former director of ISRO.

For ISRO, which runs a large and ambitious communication and remote sensing satellites programme, C-1 is a crucial mission. While ISRO chairman

K Kasturirangan had been lobbying since 1999, it was in November 2003, after G Madhavan Nair took over, that the project gained approval. Work started about four years ago. The C-1 spacecraft has been built using the indigenous capabilities of ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore with contributions from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, ISRO Inertial Systems Unit, Thiruvananthapuram, Space Application Centre (SAC), Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and Laboratory for Electro-optic Systems, Bangalore. As mentioned, the 1,380 kg spacecraft to be launched with the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) carries 11 scientific experiments.

Around November 8, when the satellite is in a polar orbit about 100 km above the moon’s surface, the moon impact probe will be ejected to hit the lunar surface. It will take a series of “close-ups” as it crashes and the instrumentation will transmit that data back. Other payloads will execute their functions over two years on the solar-powered satellite. The telemetry and data relay will be managed at the Deep Space Network Station in Byalalu near Bangalore.

The satellite has a mass of 550 kg (the weight on the moon is one-sixth that on earth due to lower gravity, but mass remains the same). “When it is in the moon orbit, our satellite will be about 550 kg, despite carrying 11 payloads on board. This is satisfactory,” says Srivastava. (Famously, astronauts eat caviar because it has the highest calorie to weight ratio, and weight is key to space missions.) Chandrayaan-1 will be launched using a PSLV variant. PSLV-C11 consists of four stages along with six strap-on rockets.

It is very cost-effective, with a price-tag of less than Rs 400 crore. A space shuttle mission from NASA, which only goes to 40,000 km (and comes back) costs about five times as much. The project cost of Rs 386 crore includes Rs 100 crore towards the cost of the launch vehicle, another Rs 100 crore for the Deep Space Network, which controls the mission, and Rs 185 crore for satellite and operations. “Actually, the moon mission’s cost of less than Rs 400 crore is just 10 per cent of the annual budget of ISRO. The money we have invested on DSN will help us with all future planetary missions including Chandrayaan-II,” a spokesperson for ISRO says.

ISRO, like any other public sector organisation, has to work under tight constraints. Insiders say it was really tough for the space research agency to accomplish the project on schedule within the given budget. ISRO outsourced non-core work to private vendors to minimise costs and speed up schedules. The major hurdle was post-Pokhran II sanctions that prevented technology transfer. As a result, the Indian payloads were developed indigenously. The failure of Insat 4C in July 2006 also slowed things down. Thankfully, all that is in the past.

ISRO and the Indian scientific establishment have a lot riding on C-1. It would make India a serious player in outer space and make it easier to attract and retain high quality scientists and engineers. The moon could eventually serve as a launch-pad for missions to other planets such as Mars. India would definitely like a seat in that game. The countdown begins on Wednesday.


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