Chandrayaan 2: From showcasing space capabilities to providing indelible images, why ISRO's project is far from a failure

  • ISRO's Chandrayaan 2 has showcased the increasing sophistication of India’s space capabilities

  • It is worth taking stock of India’s prowess in space, which has become the latest theatre for geopolitical competition

  • It is also worth noting how the nation handled the heartbreak of Chandrayaan 2

It seems strange to say this at a time when an entire nation is in mourning over what appears to be a “failed” mission to ‘soft land’ on the Moon, but ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission isn’t a “failure” by any stretch of imagination despite the optics that we witnessed since the early hours of Saturday.

The Chandrayaan 2 project has successfully completed two specific and one unexpected tasks. One, it has placed an orbiter on the Moon’s orbit from where it will keep sending pictures of the lunar surface to ISRO for a year. The significance of this maneuver shouldn’t be underestimated.

 Chandrayaan 2: From showcasing space capabilities to providing indelible images, why ISROs project is far from a failure

Disheartened over Chandrayaan2 setback, ISRO chief K Sivan was left teary-eyed minutes after the Prime Minister's address. ANI

Two, it has showcased the increasing sophistication of India’s space capabilities and three, the apparent failure to place a rover on the Moon’s polar surface has thrown up an unexpected moment of inspiring leadership: from the ISRO chief K Sivan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To buttress the point about why the mission — as ISRO itself has said — is 95 percent success, it is worth noting the mechanics of the Chandrayaan 2 project.

Ever since ISRO announced that it has lost all communication with the ‘lander’ named Vikram, some parallels have been drawn in media with an Israeli privately-funded project SpaceIL that had a similar target.

In April, the Israeli attempt to ‘soft land’ on the Moon went awry when scientists lost all contact with the $95 million Beresheet lander. It is thought to have crash landed on the Moon’s surface.

This comparison is incorrect. The Israeli attempt was entirely focused on soft-landing on the Moon’s surface. Since that object wasn’t met, it is legitimate to call the project a “failure.”

The Chandrayaan 2 project, in comparison, has been imagined on a much grander scale. At Rs 978 crore, it is a pittance compared to similar lunar missions by the US or China, but it is still more expensive than the Israeli project, is equipped with more sophisticated tools on board and has more ambitious targets.

The Chandrayaan 2 project comprises three parts: An orbiter armed with cutting-edge technology, a lander and a rover. India aimed to join the elite club of US, China and USSR/Russia as only the fourth nation to have soft-landed on the Moon taking a circuitous, more fuel-efficient path to the far side of the lunar surface that has not yet been properly explored.

The plan was that the orbiter would carry out a series of orbit changing maneuvers to enter the lunar orbit, where it will release Vikram, a 1,471 kg lander with an Electric Power Generation Capability of 650W.

The lander, which had the capability of executing a soft-landing on lunar surface, had on board a 27kg rover named Pragyan: a six-wheeled robotic vehicle that can travel up to 500 metres by leveraging solar power.

While Pragyan can communicate with Vikram, the lander can communicate with with IDSN at Byalalu near Bengaluru, as well as with the orbiter and rover.

What happened during the soft-landing has been well-documented. ISRO chairman K Sivan announced that the powered descent of the lander Vikram was normal till reaching the altitude of 2.51 kilometres. Subsequently, the communication from the lander was lost. The data is being analysed.

At this stage, it is impossible to say what exactly happened but speculation is that either the soft landing was well-executed but somehow the lander lost all communication capabilities (unlikely) or the lander crashed on the lunar surface at a velocity bigger than what was intended (likely).

At that velocity, which was greater than what was planned, the lander may have crash-landed and turned into debris. To put things in perspective, even China that has succeeded in soft landing on lunar surface, did so on the near side of the Moon in first attempt.

However, to say that this indicates a “failure” of the mission, is wrong. The lander and the rover were designed to last for one lunar day that translates to roughly 14 days on earth where it could have collected data about the far side of the Moon.

While that data would have been invaluable, the spacecraft wouldn’t have survived temperatures of about minus 180 degrees Celsius of a lunar night. Therefore, its contribution would have been limited. The bigger job of data mining lies with orbiter, and it continues to circle around the Moon and sending back data. It shall do so for a year.

As an article in Spacenews points out, the “orbiter is in a 100 by 100-kilometer lunar polar orbit where it is expected to operate for one year. Its eight payloads include a Terrain Mapping Camera, which will produce a 3D map for studying lunar mineralogy and geology. It also carries an X-ray spectrometer, solar X-ray monitor, imaging spectrometer and a high-resolution camera.

The orbiter “is in perfect health and communicating with the ground station. This includes the search for further evidence of water on the Moon, and an assessment of its relative abundance.”

In this context, it is worth taking stock of India’s prowess in space, which has become the latest theatre for geopolitical competition. India has already successfully conducted an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile test, called Mission Shakti, during which it shot down a low-orbital satellite via DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence interceptor.

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It showcases India’s ambitious space programme that includes placing an orbiter in Martian orbit (Mangalyaan) and Gaganyaan, that involves sending manned mission to space in a project to be launched by December 2021.

India has already launched a world-record 104 satellites in a single rocket (PSLV-C37) in 2017 and a year later, ISRO successfully launched GSAT-29 satellite from Sriharikota, the heaviest satellite weighing at 3,423 kg aimed at providing better communication for remote areas of country.

As India’s space programme becomes more sophisticated, spurred no doubt by China’s technological prowess in this field, it is also worth noting how the nation handled the heartbreak of Chandrayaan 2’s partial failure.

The image of a prime minister consoling the ISRO chief who had suffered an emotion breakdown following the lander’s malfunctioning, was a moment that transfixed the nation.

It not only showed the depth of emotion of one leader who had put his heart and soul into a project, but also the leadership of a prime minister who was there to extend support and lend his shoulder when the ISRO chief broke down in full public view. These moments will make the nation stronger, and its resolve steelier.

Updated Date: Sep 08, 2019 08:36:45 IST