Feb 2, 2009

India - A mission well planned

A little over one hundred days ago, India launched its first mission of space exploration. In a mission where much could easily have gone wrong, Chandrayaan-1 has with seemingly effortless ease journeyed nearly 400,000 km to the Moon. Soon after the spacecraft began to orbit Earth’s natural satellite, the Moon Impact Probe carried by the spacecraft was separated and it radioed back images of the lunar surface as it fell. The 10 scientific instruments on the spacecraf t are, to the evident delight of scientists, working splendidly. The Terrain Mapping Camera, for instance, has been providing high-resolution images of the lunar surface. The Mini Synthetic Aperture Radar has been giving scientists their first look inside the Moon’s darkest craters. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper, the Hyperspectral Imager, and the Chandrayaan-1 Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (C1XS) have begun to map the chemicals and minerals that are on the Moon. The C1XS recently demonstrated far greater sensitivity than had been expected of it. The smooth efficiency with which the Chandrayaan-1 mission has progressed is truly a tribute to the years of careful planning and meticulous attention paid to every minute detail by scientists and engineers of the Indian Space Research Organisation. As six of the instruments on the spacecraft have come from the United States and Europe, one of which was developed jointly with India and another with India’s contribution, the mission is also a testament to ISRO’s ability to handle international collaborations in a challenging programme.

The public may well gasp and admire the pictures that come back from Chandrayaan-1. But ultimately this is a mission about science. The aim is to understand more about Earth’s natural satellite and the resources it possesses. “Nowhere else,” notes a report from the U.S. National Research Council, “can we see back with such clarity to the time when Earth and the other terrestrial planets were formed and life emerged on Earth.” Data from Chandrayaan-1 is expected to shed new light on whether water in the form of ice lies trapped at the bottom of craters at the lunar poles. (Analysis of images from Japan’s Kaguya probe launched in 2007 has suggested that large sheets of such ice are not present.) Likewise, the chemical and mineralogical maps of the Moon prepared with data from Chandrayaan-1 will assist scientific efforts to decipher its early history. These maps will also help ISRO determine where it should send Chandrayaan-2. This Indo-Russian follow-on mission is expected to place a robot rover that can analyse soil samples on the lunar surface around 2012. Good science from Chandrayaan-1 promises an exciting future for the nation’s space exploration.

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