India’s date with Moon: A transit point or our new home?

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Astronomical distances are amazingly huge. Compared to planets and stars which are billions of light years away, our very own moon is just 400,000 kilometres away from us. In interstellar words, it’s just an Uber ride from your home to office. With the matter on Earth getting scary with passage of every second because of freaky weather, terrifying shortage of resources and messy situation of environment, the Moon is looking brighter than ever: as our first outpost in space, a transit stop… perhaps could even be a location for a human colony in future!

The Moon still home to a number of mysteries despite being one of the most explored celestial body in the space. This is why; it is still on the top of the bucket list of almost all the space agencies across the length and breadth of the world. Coming to India, as a civilization, we have always been fascinated by the sky. Centuries ago, we developed a strong connection of night sky with astronomy and astrology, which finds its origin in Vedas. Hence, our quest to the Moon scientifically may not be that much old, but symbolically it is almost as old as the civilization itself. As the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is about to begin its countdown for Chandrayaan-2, its second mission to the Moon, let’s have a look at our journey to the Moon.

All about Chandrayaan-1

India launched its first deep space mission Chandrayaan 1 on 22 October, 2008. It was a historic moment for ISRO knowing the fact that India launched its first satellite, Aryabhatta, six years after the Americans landed on the moon. Considering this delayed entry into the space club, India has made a remarkable progress in space exploration in recent times.

The story of Chandrayaan-1 is well known to everyone. After performing the operations and experiments for almost a year, it suddenly stopped working in August 2009. Its biggest discovery was finding the presence of water at the lunar poles. Perhaps, maybe it couldn’t handle the sudden fame and it lost its communication with ISRO. However, the satellite was rediscovered by NASA in 2017. Though it has long been non-operational yet it is orbiting the moon, possibly silently waiting for its fellow satellite, Chandrayaan-2.

Mission Objectives

Moon has been a frequent visitor for the mankind for over six decades now. The first lunar flyby was launched in 1959; the first landing in 1966 and the first human landing in 1969. From 60s to 80s, the race to the Moon was essentially being fought between the US and the Soviet space agencies. With the passage of time, the technologies spread across the globe and Japan, Europe and China stepped in with their lunar missions in 90s and 2000s.

The Chandrayaan-1 mission was announced by the Government of India in 2003. The main objective of this mission was to map the chemical, photo-geological and mineral characteristics of the Moon and create a 3-D atlas of this near and far side. As a predecessor of Chandrayaan-2, it was also responsible for testing and finding the site for the soft landing on the Moon.

Over next half decade, ISRO rapidly developed the components of the spacecraft: the PSLV-C11 rocket which carried the satellite into the space, a Moon Impact Probe (MIP) and an orbiter. It was a budget spacecraft which was built by ISRO at the cost of US$76 million or Rs.386 crore. For comparison, the first lunar mission of China, Chang’e 1 which was launched in 2007 was built in US$180 million.

The orbiter was designed in the lines of Kalpana-1, a meteorological satellite which was launched by India in 2002. It carried a variety of instruments ranging from equipment used for studying external and internal features of moon to sophisticated cameras. While the MIP was designed to crash into the lunar surface after studying the lunar atmosphere. Apart from these, Chandrayaan also carried equipment from the US, UK, Sweden, Germany and Bulgaria.

Voyage and Results

After circling the Moon for few days, Chandrayaan finally reached a height of 10,000 metres above the surface. On Novemeber 14, the MIP crashed near the lunar South Pole detaching itself from the orbiter. While it was free-felling for about half an hour, the probe reportedly took readings which suggested the presence of water vapour in the atmosphere of the Moon. However, this evidence was not conclusive.

More importantly, the reading which probe sent after crashing to the orbiter pointed towards the presence of water on the surface and the sub-surface under the lunar poles. At the same time, Moon Mineralogy Mapper which was sent by NASA (US) recorded the same results confirming the presence of solid water (ice) in crater shadows near the North and the South Poles.

These findings took the scientific community and global media by storm. Of course, this wasn’t the first evidence of presence of water of the Moon—the Soviets believed that they found water on lunar surface back in 1976. Even NASA’s own probes showed the signature of water in the radio waves they received. However, these findings weren’t sufficient to reach any conclusion and could be explained via other phenomena too.

Unfortunately, after circling the Moon 3,400 times, an equipment failure forced the mission to be abandoned. ISRO claims that over 95% of the mission objectives were achieved even though the mission was aborted an year early.

Hence, in a nutshell, the presence of water on our natural satellite was confirmed by Chandrayaan-1 which also enhanced our thirst for interstellar adventure.

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