Monday, October 26, 2009

Vital findings and lessons

Despite an abrupt termination, ISRO claims that the Chandrayaan mission was successful.

India's first deep space mission, Chandrayaan-I ended its operations prematurely, nearly 10 months before its scheduled termination. The loss of radio communication between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)'s base stations and the Chandrayaan spacecraft marked this abrupt termination. ISRO blamed un-anticipated solar radiation resulting in the "baking" of the many electronic devices on the spacecraft as being responsible for the failure of the communication devices.

Despite the premature death of the project, ISRO has claimed tremendous success in achieving what the mission set out to do - chief among which is the indication of the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface by an instrument placed on the spacecraft as a payload by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) - the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). Among other mission objectives, the terrain mapping camera on board the spacecraft was to help in the preparation of a three dimensional map of the lunar surface, while a spectrometry device was to prepare a detailed analysis of the mineralogical components of the lunar surface. ISRO claims that within the short time frame, all these major objectives and a model of international collaboration on space research has been successfully achieved. As regards the failures in simulating the exposure environment for the spacecraft that ultimately resulted in the abrupt ending of the mission, ISRO affirms that these will be valuable lessons to take into consideration during the planning of the next moon mission, Chandrayaan-II.

The indication of the presence of water on the moon by the M3 module on Chandrayaan-I has raised interesting possibilities. It has given a fillip to researchers who have argued that the presence of water on the moon makes it possible for moon to be used as a base for refueling for future spacecrafts. The M3 module provided the most unambiguous information ever found on presence of water molecules on the moon. Lunar samples from other moon probing missions sent by various countries were not able to justifiably prove the presence of water due to various reasons. ISRO is continuing to analyse data from other module on the spacecraft which was fitted to study the possible movement of water molecules into colder polar regions of the moon. This finding would be more relevant for a future "refueling from the moon" mission, as the water currently found by M3does not amount to more a few bucketfuls.

Notwithstanding this finding, it must be said that ISRO was non-transparent about Chandrayaan's functioning and fate. The star sensors on the spacecraft had already failed early into the mission and the spacecraft's orbit was raised significantly to 200 km from the original 100 km in order to prevent the spacecraft from spiralling down on to the moon. ISRO's official reasoning for this move was instead dubious, ostensibly because of the "prestige value" of the entire mission. One of the "spectacular" components of the mission included a nationalist thrust - the Moon Impacter Probe, an apparatus fitted with Indian insignia was dropped on the moon - an event which was received with much fanfare in the media. With such attention accrued to the mission, ISRO thought it better to hide the real reasons for the orbital shift, which ultimately resulted in the termination of the mission.

Chandrayaan-II, now envisaged by ISRO, is touted as a a project that is designed to ultimately help in landing astronauts onto the moon and to achieve purposes such as setting bases for India on the moon - in other words, "lunar land grab". While the engineering feats - the successful launch of a deep space mission, the establishment of complicated telemetry devices to track the same are remarkable and so were some of the scientific objectives of the Chandrayaan-I mission, the purported future objectives of Chandrayaan-II seem too fanciful, costly and therefore unnecessary beyond filling with abstract "nationalist pride" and must be well avoided. These are indeed important lessons to be learnt by ISRO from the startling successes and the abrupt failure both of which are part of the Chandrayaan mission. Transparency and sticking to positive scientific objectives should remain the focus of the space agency.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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