The launch of Chandrayaan-1 two years ago marked a new dawn for India, which showcased the country's technological prowess at its best.
Two years ago, India's destination moon began on a wet windy morning from an island on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. As most of India slept, on rainy October 22 when the sun had barely peeped out of an ominous cloud band, a 300-tonne monster belching fire and thunder leapt up from the coast. It was literally a new dawn for India, showcasing the country's technological prowess at its best. It was with nervous energy that I watched India's coming out party, one may suggest, in launching its maiden mission to the moon.
It was a dramatic moon rise for a country where over a billion hearts were beating in anticipation of the success of its maiden mission to the moon. The successful takeoff from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDCS), Sriharikota, at 6.22 a.m. on October 22, 2008, was a spectacular, copybook launch for Chandrayaan-1 and one that catapulted India into a small clutch of powerful, space-faring giants across the world. Calling it a historic moment achieved against tremendous odds, G. Madhavan Nair, then Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said: “Today what we have charted is a remarkable journey for an Indian spacecraft to go to the moon and try to unravel the mysteries of the Earth's closest celestial body and its only natural satellite.”
A remarkable journey had undoubtedly begun. The success of the launch finally allayed concerns at lightning that was occurring in the atmosphere due to rain and stormy weather; also a fuel leak in the launch pad caused some worry.
Almost a year after its launch, the first-ever evidence of water on the moon made worldwide news. Space science experts from NASA and India said “the moon is not bone dry” and the real impact of this discovery is only beginning to hit us. Led by Carle Pieters, Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University, Rhode Island, U.S., who was also principal investigator of the Moon Minerology Mapper (M3) on board Chandrayaan-1, the team published what is now termed a game-changer discovery — of these “distinct signatures of water on the moon.” The Indo-American team discovered water on the moon as a thin, invisible film covering on what we for half-a-century thought was a parched, waterless pock-marked moonscape.
When Chandrayaan-1 was aborted 10 months after launch, a year and more before originally planned, there was intense scientific debate on whether the mission had succeeded or failed. The finding of water has changed the flavour and direction of that debate forever. Mr. Nair emphatically stated, when quizzed about the mission's premature end, that it was a success because the mission had achieved 95 per cent of its original goals before the official termination. Nearing the second anniversary of the historic launch, a high-power review committee set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has concluded that “the scientific experiments could only cover 70 per cent of the moon.” The panel also revealed, for the first time, that it was a tiny 110-gram part that cost merely $5000 which brought down the $100-million mission. As one ISRO engineer remarked, “it was an ant that killed the elephant.”
A part called a ‘DC-DC converter,' very much akin to a tiny transformer that was imported from an American company, Modular Devices Inc., is what failed. Not one but five of them sequentially failed onboard Chandrayaan-1, causing the premature termination of the mission. The probe committee, in its 50-page report, faulted ISRO on its testing and quality assurance for not having detected the poor quality of this vital imported component. But at the same time the panel concluded, “the management of Chandrayaan-1 mission particularly after the occurrence of failures, clearly points out to the maturity of ISRO in mission management.” Dubbing the mission “quite successful,” the Prime Minister's panel concluded that Chandrayaan-1 “has brought great prestige to India.”
There can be no doubt that the mission united India like never before and the discovery of water was the icing on the cake. “Never seen before images of the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon have been captured,” said Paul D. Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, principal investigator of the payload sent to search for water. “The new radar images are not only visually arresting, but they will be extremely useful in unravelling the complex geological history of the Moon as a whole,” he says.
The real impact and significance of this finding may make its dimensions felt only in the years to come. As Dr. Pieters herself says: “This opens a whole new avenue [of lunar research], but we have to understand the physics of it to utilise it.” Isn't it intriguing that moon rocks available after the Apollo missions never showed any sign of water on analysis, which is why experts always held that the moon was dry, except possibly for some pockets of water ice in the shadowy craters at the poles?
Chandrayaan-1 also began a rather unique spirit of international partnership and collaboration as it was an Indian mission with international partners, carrying onboard six scientific instruments from the U.S., the European Space Agency and Bulgaria. No extra fee or travelling ticket was charged by India to fly these instruments over 4,00,000 km — all overseas partners really got a free ride to the moon.
Despite its premature death, India's maiden mission returned many scientific goodies, including the life giving message that the moon is moist. This startling discovery came about even though Chandrayaan-1 was the cheapest mission to go the moon in decades. Now the excitement is so high that a whole new generation of interplanetary missions is on the anvil. A revisit to the moon this time with a lander and a rover is planned for 2013; a mission to study the sun called Aditya is cooking; a fly-by mission to an asteroid is being considered; and scientists are already nurturing dreams of sending an unmanned mission to Mars within a decade. On its second birthday, let us celebrate India's moon moment!
(Pallava Bagla is the correspondent for SCIENCE magazine and co-author of the book Destination Moon — India's quest for the Moon, Mars and Beyond. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)