To the Moon and Beyond: Time for India to Strengthen its ‘Space’ Muscles
Radhika Daga

Lunar exploration missions date back to the very beginning of space exploration itself. In over a year’s time following Sputnik, the advances in aerospace technologies were made to enable forays into our closest neighbour in outer space. The desire to out-compete each other drove the two super powers of that era to devise lunar expeditions then not so much to discover anything new about the Moon, but to impress the world of their technological prowess. While the United States, in shock after Sputnik, pledged to place human on the Moon, the (then) USSR concentrated on unmanned lunar craft. The Apollo and Luna Programs of the United States and the Soviets respectively captured the first phase of ventures to the Moon. This year marks 50 years of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, which landed the two astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Buzz Aldrin on the moon.1

These deep space missions were nonetheless successful for their own times despite being powered by archaic technologies in contrast to the high tech missions today. If it wasn’t for the discoveries and knowledge unraveled by the earliest lunar missions, the current voyages would have been out of sight and luck. During the space race, engineers had to figure out how orbital mechanics worked from scratch. And if an agency wanted something for its spacecraft, for instance a computer, it had to invent it first. 2

The six crewed Moon landing missions brought back more than 800 pounds of lunar rocks. These samples collected during the lunar explorations unearthed huge amounts of knowledge about the geology and formation of the Earth’s moon, while some samples are yet unexplored. Over the years, a collection of satellites have also contributed in collecting daily information about the health of our home planet by observing forests, farms, urban areas, freshwater sources and more.3 It is thus logical to assume the expediency of the forthcoming missions with exceedingly better technology and a base to take off from. Much contrary to this assumption, as a spacecraft engineer, Yoav Landsman, states it, “In some ways it’s much easier, but in the end, it’s not easy at all.”4

For such reasons stated above, demystifying the moon mysteries remains a work in progress with each mission undertaken by more than a couple of space agencies today. For a second time this year, another spacecraft missed a successful landing on Moon’s surface. However the mere complexity of the mission had kept the countries from actually executing a pursuit of this sort. Consequently, there are small wonders around the singular popularity of the Chandrayaan 2 mission all around the world. Also the maneuverability and execution of this mission is set to make notable contributions to the planetary science community for all its future pursuits.

India’s is not only one of the oldest but the most consistent space programs by any country. The country’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), preceded by Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), began its endeavours in 1962. Since its very inception, ISRO has treaded its path in the true spirit of science. As a result of its collective perseverance, it has come a long way from carrying satellites on bullock cart5 to developing the most advanced launch vehicles to launch its satellites, in a step-by-step approach. Further, any kind of embargo has not been successful at diluting the spirit of ISRO’s scientists. Rather, the embargoes have been used (as in the case of importing cryogenic engine technology from Russia) 6 as an impetus to promote indigenisation.

It was due to these efforts that the nationally acclaimed research body undertook its second mission to the moon. This time the aim was to make a soft landing on the Moon’s South Polar region. India became the only country to attempt a landing on this region of the Moon yet unexplored, due to its challenging technical requirements. Chandrayaan’s integrated module comprises of technology and software developed across the country, including ISRO's most powerful launch vehicle to date and a wholly indigenous rover. 7 This gained India a strategic edge and autonomy in space technologies which is largely credited to the sharp minds of the nation. Also, because of India’s in house capabilities in critical technologies it has absolutely minimal vulnerabilities from any external pressures, existing in case of other imported technologies. The importance of remarkable missions like Chandrayaan 2 can best be juxtaposed and appreciated in Barack Obama’s eponymous statement made to the National Academy of Sciences, “The nation that out-educates us today will outcompete us tomorrow”.8

Indeed, India is leading as a spacefaring nation today, having covered each dimension with unfettering determination and exceptional responsibility. The world is in awe of India’s achievements and success with space technology and quite often flabbergasted by how economical our space programs are. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission launched in 2013 cost us Rs 450 cr which a record in itself. ISRO has even more records under its belt.9 The most outstanding one is the PSLV-C37 mission (2017) to have launched 104 satellites on a single Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

The Chandrayaan 2 mission is another landmark in the space exploration missions by ISRO. It of course reiterates India’s commitment to the human welfare on Earth. This mission also abides by the Moon Treaty of 1979, of which India is a signatory-entailing to moon and other celestial bodies. The treaty makes a declaration that the Moon should be used for the benefit of all states and all peoples of the international community. It also expresses a desire to prevent the Moon from becoming a source of international conflict.

In the light of its success and confidence with lunar expeditions, India also stands a chance to revive the nearly dormant Moon Treaty at a global scale. The country has earned itself a stature to decide the rules of the road, especially when the rumours of setting up a ‘Moon Village’ by European Space Agency are doing the rounds. China recently landed a crewless Chang’e 4 mission on the far side of the moon and is looking to land humans on the moon too. This ambition is shared by the US, aiming to accomplish its crewed mission by 2024 ‘by any means necessary’. Under the ambit of space privatisation, SpaceX has a contract for lunar tourism. SpaceX has entered the game with Israel’s attempt at lunar exploration earlier this year. On the other hand, ‘Blue Origin’ recently unveiled a mock-up of its Blue Moon lunar lander.10

There could be no better centenary tribute to Dr Vikram Sarabhai than the near successful landing of the lander named after him. Of course, it’s filled the nation with a sense of pride and simultaneously inspired a space consciousness amongst the present generations. The next decade of space missions is bound to see India engage with the planetary science community and be a decisive player on the table. The new ideas and technologies will be driven by Indian minds, whilst India’s ascend as a space power will add to the national power of the country. From the national security standpoint, the capabilities developed as a space power can not only secure the assets in space but also on the ground and in oceans. The technological prowess in Space will accelerate the country’s future goals of rising to the super power repute. After all, space is where the future of the Earth lies.

Present level of success in this expedition can be viewed from two perspectives. First is the largely overlooked holistic development achieved with the execution of such challenging missions. This mission has not only realised a heavy participation from the private sector, it has also drawn upon some of the most advanced technologies that can be heard of. The contribution of private players in the state-run mission is estimated at Rs 603 cr for the spacecraft systems and Rs 375 cr for the launcher GSLV MK-III.11 Companies like Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and Godrej group have provided with hardware and testing solutions. Other than the two large corporates, companies like Ananth Technologies, MTAR Technologies, Inox Technologies, Lakshmi Machine Works, Centum Avasarala and Karnataka Hybrid Microdevices, are reported to have contributed to the successful launch of the mission.12

This can be an opportunity for the erection of a public-private ecosystem in country’s overall R&D structure, hitherto lagging. This can especially help in accelerating country’s subsequent ventures on the Moon or even elsewhere in outer space. An upswing in privatisation of the space industry mustn’t be ignored by the policy makers at this point. The space agencies in the other space faring countries can undertake lunar exploration missions solitarily, however their space policy-makers, by involving the private sector, are seeking a multiplier effect of their countries’ strategic space capabilities. Concurrently, the nature of these technologies can lead to much desirable spin offs. The technologies developed for this mission could find earthly applications in various industrial sectors, such as in robotics. The establishment of New Space India Limited (NSIL), along the lines of Antrix Corporation, has been set up for the marketing and commercialisation of space technologies spun off by ISRO. It can also give a major boost to the aerospace industry under the ‘Make in India’ programme.

It is no secret that the mere conceptualisation of such missions is a product of the extraordinary intellect and prescience that persists with our scientists. This can be the impetus for encouraging more youngsters into STEM education and tap on the India’s vast as well as young human resource base.

Lastly, Space is becoming a pillar of India’s diplomatic narratives manifested as strategic partnerships with countries like Japan and France. India and France have signed a letter of intent for ISRO and CNES to jointly build Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)-2 by 2020. 13 While with Japan’s space agency, JAXA is working to develop a joint robotic mission with ISRO.14 India has taken a proactive approach previously, as in the case of the South Asian Satellite where it intends on sharing information on climate change, MDA and other areas for the prosperity of the entire region. We can anticipate the landing of humans on the Moon a few years hence. India can be a technology provider and leader in view of its success with this mission.

The second perspective which defines the level of success in this mission is from a scientific point of view or that which is associated with the exploratory objectives of this mission. ISRO’s agendas are still far from being reduced to rubble, with 90 to 95 percent of the mission objectives being accomplished. Chandrayaan 2 will carry forward the legacy of its predecessor by contributing to the discoveries around the moon. Having placed the Orbiter in its intended orbit around the Moon shall enrich our understanding of the moon’s evolution and mapping of the minerals and water molecules in the Polar Regions, using its eight state-of-the-art scientific instruments.15

The orbiter is equipped with two cameras — a terrain mapping camera and an orbiter high resolution camera (OHRC) — to give detailed maps of the surface.16The OHRC is the highest resolution camera (0.3m) in any lunar mission so far and shall provide high resolution images which will be immensely useful to the global scientific community.17 Information about the moon's composition will come through a pair of spectrometers: the Large Area Soft X-ray Spectrometer (CLASS) and an infrared spectrometer. A synthetic aperture radar will scan for water ice and also estimate the thickness of the soil (regolith). The orbiter also has instruments to look at solar X-rays and the moon's tenuous atmosphere or exosphere, which is shared by other rocky bodies like Mercury.18 Moreover, the precise launch and mission management has ensured a long life of almost 7 years instead of the planned one year.19

The time is ripe for the nation to conceive an all-encompassing National Space Policy which can bring out India’s ambitions, capabilities and its stance on other space related issues.

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  2. "India's Failed Moon Landing Is the Second in 2019 - The Atlantic." 7 Sep. 2019, Accessed 08 Sep. 2019.
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  4. "India's Failed Moon Landing Is the Second in 2019 - The Atlantic." 7 Sep. 2019, Accessed 08 Sep. 2019.
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  11. "Chandrayaan 2 shows India's potential, but we need to make ...." Accessed 10 Sep. 2019.
  12. "Chandrayaan-2 mission: From Godrej to L&T, private sector ...." 22 Jul. 2019, Accessed 10 Sep. 2019.
  13. "Mars Orbiter Mission 2 - Wikipedia." Accessed 10 Sep. 2019.
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  17. "Chandrayaan2 Latest updates - ISRO." Accessed 10 Sep. 2019.
  18. "The Science of India's Chandrayaan-2 Mission to the Moon's ...." 13 Jul. 2019, Accessed 06 Sep. 2019.
    *contrary to what we learn from most school-texts, our moon does indeed have an extremely tenuous atmosphere of various gases including sodium and potassium, which are not found in the atmospheres of Earth, Mars or Venus
  19. "Chandrayaan2 Latest updates - ISRO." Accessed 10 Sep. 2019.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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Amazing and insightful


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