Monday, October 27, 2008

Into Deep Space

India’s moon probe has fascinating possibilities in scientific research, but will it stop there?

Image courtesy

With the launch of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft from the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has taken a vertical leap into “deep space” exploration, after decades of a focus on launching communication, weather, remote sensing and observatory satellites.

The Chandrayaan-1 mission has been launched to probe the moon, photograph its surface in all its dimensions, and identify chemical and mineral compositions on its body. Sixty-seven lunar missions have been undertaken already by other nations (particularly the United States and the former Soviet Union), but the moon still contains enough mysteries for the Chandrayaan mission to unravel, and is fitted with 11 instruments (five from India and six from other nations) for this purpose.

After the launch from Sriharikota, Chandrayaan-1 is now subject to constant tracking by scientists to propel the mission into the moon’s orbit and seamlessly enable its probing devices, a formidable task considering the distances that the satellite is supposed to travel away from the earth. Guiding the satellite into “deep space” (nominally defined as the distance between the moon and the earth – around 400,000 kilometres) is the most challenging aspect of the mission. An indigenously built antenna device and communications system termed the Indian Deep Space Network and part of the ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command has been set up for the purpose. If the tracking and guiding operations succeed, Chandrayaan-1 would then break fresh ground in ISRO’s history.

From an orbital distance of 100 km from the lunar surface, the payload equipment on Chandrayaan-1 will investigate the mineral and chemical composition of the moon and map its surface. The probes will also identify if there is water on the lunar surface and the study of the topography is expected to provide clues about the origin and evolution of the moon. Besides the instruments attached to the mission for probe purposes, an impactor device (the moon probe) that has been built into Chandrayaan-1 will detach itself from the satellite and land on the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan-1 is therefore primarily a “good science” venture that aims to comprehensively add to the already large number of lunar studies that have been done by earlier missions to the moon. It has also been effected at a price – Rs 386 crore – that compares very well with the ventures by other nations.

Additionally, it is claimed the moon probe will also investigate the presence of Helium-3, the chemical element that is speculated will be a fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors (nuclear fusion energy generation – as against nuclear fission – is today commercially unviable). That resources on the moon – which belong to global humanity – are to be mapped as a part of a potentially “lunar land-grab” project is a negative idea, if that indeed is one of the reasons for the mission.

The government has already cleared Chandrayaan-2, a joint lunar venture between India and Russia that would land a landrover on the moon, apart from launching an orbiting spacecraft as well. The enthusiasm about India achieving a deep space mission has encouraged some strategists and commentators to talk of using the learning experience to fuel intercontinental ballistic missile programmes. This is where the positive value of such research endeavours ends. Obsessions about using ISRO’s expertise for long range missile programmes will only lead to expenditure on ventures (such as sending manned missions to the moon that serve no purpose other than to “enhance national pride”) that do not fulfil any useful objectives.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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