On July 22, 2019, India became the fourth country in the world to try a soft landing on the lunar surface with the launch of Chandrayaan-2. Consisting of a lunar orbiter called the Vikram lander along with the Pragyan lunar rover, the mission was the brainchild of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Chandrayaan-2 reached the lunar orbit on August 19. However, on September 6, ISRO lost contact with Vikram lander while trying to make contact with the lunar surface. The probe was just 2.1 km away from the lunar surface before losing contact.
Chandrayaan 2 is a 3,800 Kg spacecraft that was launched into the Earth’s orbit by the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV MkIII-M1.
It had onboard seven instruments and two more that were attached to the lunar lander. Vikram lander also carried with it the Pragyan rover. The Chandrayaan orbiter reached the lunar surface and settled itself at a distance of about 100 km from the moon.
Cameras, radios, and spectrometers attached to the orbiter have already started to send back-illuminated images of the lunar surface. It carried a total of 13 payloads - eight in the orbiter, three in Vikram, and two in Pragyan.
The Vikram lander was meant to land near the South Pole of the moon. It would then launch the Pragyan rover on the moon. For the next two weeks, Praygan would have traversed the local lunar topography and analyzed the chemical composition of rocks and lunar soil. The idea was to understand the mineral and elemental composition of the moon better, analyze its topography and exosphere, and also look for potential seismic activity.
However, despite heavy scouting from ISRO, contact with the lander could not be established. Initially, the orbiter was meant to collect data from the probe and the rover for 14 days. But after Vikram’s crash landing, the orbiter’s mission has been extended to seven years.
Chandrayaan-2 is a follow-up to Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar mission that was launched in 2009. It was launched from the second launch pad of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, one of the two satellite launch pads in India.
Its main scientific objective was to record and study the variations of the lunar surface closely. But the overarching objective for launching both Chandrayaan 1 and 2 was to search for traces of lunar water or lunar ice as well as signatures of molecules that contain the oxygen-hydrogen bond (hydroxyl).
Chandrayaan-2 attempted to reach where no one had reached before - the south pole of the moon. ISRO chief K Sivan had predicted “15 minutes of terror” before the eventful night of September 6 when jubilation went to silence in a matter of minutes.
As per scientists at ISRO, the main concern was the soft landing itself. A soft-landing, opposite to the “hard landing”, is one that is specially designed not to protect the craft and devices it contains. There have only been 38 soft-landing attempts made on the moon so far, and just half of them have achieved success.
Additionally, challenges for Chandrayaan-2 included identifying the accurate trajectory with precision and facing extreme environmental conditions, including complete vacuum and diverse temperatures. It was also important to successfully achieve trans-lunar injection.
Successfully establishing deep-space communication and orbiting the moon was also one of the concerns ISRO had.
Despite the failure of soft-landing, Chandrayaan-2 is a huge leap for India as it sets the tone for the future of India in space. It internationally marked India’s space ambitions with all major media international media houses dedicatedly covering the launch and the landing.
Another critically acclaimed success of Chandrayaan-2 was its amazing cost-effectiveness. The entire mission cost Rs 978 crore. This included the orbiter, rover, lander, as well as s ground-support and navigation network that cost a total of Rs 603 crore. The GSLV rocket launcher, which included an innovative cryogenic engine, cost Rs 375 crore.
Firstly, the cost of manpower in India is much lower than that in Western countries; secondly, most of the instruments aboard the orbiter, including Vikram and Pragyan, were homegrown. Many of the requirements needed for the success of the mission were outsourced to local manufacturers.
The first country to achieve a soft landing on the moon was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Part of the unmanned space mission called the Luna Programme, the spacecraft called Luna 9 landed on the moon on Feb 3, 1966.
USSR had also been the first country to successfully send a spacecraft to the Moon. Luna 2 impacted the moon on September 13, 1959.
The second country to achieve a soft landing on the moon was the United States, though it eventually became the first to put a man on the moon. The world’s first manned spacecraft to the moon, Apollo 11, was launched on July 20, 1969. To date, the US remains the only country to have successfully carried out manned missions, indeed six of them. The last of them departed the lunar surface in 1972.
However, there were no soft-landings on the moon between 1976 and 2013.
The latest country to become part of the exclusive lunar club was China, with its Chang’e 3 lunar craft in 2013. The follow-up mission Chang’e 4, also successfully soft-landed on the “far side of the moon” in December 2019. It was part of the second phase of China’s Lunar Exploration Program.
The moon is Earth’s gateway to space. It is the launchpad to a greater and deeper exploration of space.
Moreover, a greater understanding of the moon would allow humanity to better unravel the mysteries of space, as well as the birth and history of the Earth itself. The rocks brought back by the Apollo missions greatly changed the way scientists understood the formation of both the moon and planets as well as the composition of the solar system. In 2019, the scientific community across the world is seeking for a deeper analysis and understanding of the moon.
India is only the fourth country in the world to attempt a soft landing on the moon. The US is also pushing for a return to the moon by 2024. Japan’s first moon rover will land in 2021. In the long run, getting a jumpstart ahead of others may prove to India’s advantage when it comes to space exploration. A successful soft landing could pave the way for India to put its first astronaut in space.
Another important reason why India needs to continue its efforts in space is to gain strategic and diplomatic leverage in international trade and politics. Additionally, space missions can help increase interest in fields of studies such as physics, astrophysics, and other related fields of study.