On the moon, over the moon

Chandrayaan-3 signals the launch of India’s time in space exploration

August 24, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 10:45 am IST

At 5.40 p.m. on August 23, the Chandrayaan-3 lander was a 1.7-tonne hunk of metal, plastic, and glass speeding in an orbit some 30 km above the moon. But in the next 23 minutes, it had made history by slowing down, righting itself, and — guided by a suite of sensors and actuators — gently descending to the moon’s surface. As it touched down shortly after 6 p.m., people gathered at the various Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) centres, and across India were jubilant. India is only the fourth country in history to have soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon, and the first to have done so in the moon’s South Polar region. The feat illustrated a simple fact of complex space flight missions: by virtue of their enormous hunger for resources but at the same time capacity for caprice, succeeding at them is indistinguishable from a triumph of human will. That is why they are capable of galvanising people — as Chandrayaan-3 has now done for India. The immediate implication of the Chandrayaan-3 lander now sitting on the moon is that ISRO took away the right lessons from the failure of the preceding mission, Chandrayaan-2. In September 2019, as the Chandrayaan-2 lander was 2.1 km above the lunar surface, ISRO lost contact. Based on data transmitted by the lander until then and that from other sources, including the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, ISRO pieced together the distal causes of the lander’s premature demise. Experts at ISRO then modified 21 subsystems to give rise to the upgraded Chandrayaan-3 lander. The latter is particularly distinguished by the redundancies built into it: if one component or process had failed, another would likely have taken over.

Taking a broader view of time, Chandrayaan-3 sits at an important juncture. India is now a member of the Artemis Accords, the U.S.-led multilateral effort to place humans on the moon by 2025 and thereafter to expand human space exploration to the earth’s wider neighbourhood in the solar system. Given the firsts that India has now achieved, it has an opportunity to lead the other Artemis countries interested in maximising the contributions of the space sector to their economies, alongside the U.S. While Russia and India were not racing to land on the moon this week, the failure of Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft on August 19 foretells the country’s ability to contribute in more limited fashion, in this decade at least, to the International Lunar Research Station programme, which it leads together with China as a parallel axis to the Artemis Accords. With Chandrayaan-3, India has also demonstrated familiarity with the major types of interplanetary spacecraft: orbiters, landers, and rovers. The Chandrayaan-3 rover is rudimentary, and speaks to an important focus area for the Indian space programme: the planning and implementation of scientific missions. The data from Chandrayaan-3’s scientific instruments will be crucial because the mission will be the first to physically, chemically, and thermally characterise the soil, subsoil, and air near the moon’s South Pole on location. India has some measure of technological superiority now compared to most other space-faring countries, and it should press the advantage by going to more places in the solar system and conducting stellar science. The better space-based scientific instruments currently operated by India are largely concerned with earth-observation and remote-sensing; AstroSat is a notable exception as the forthcoming Aditya-L1, XPoSat, and NISAR missions are expected to be. In the relatively recent past, Chandrayaan-1 was scientifically well-equipped whereas the Mars Orbiter Mission had room for improvement (it was a technology demonstrator but at the same time it did get to Mars). Better science results demand more investment in research, both in the public and private sectors, rather than spending cuts, and mission design that puts scientific outcomes before engineering thresholds and launchability.

The landing also brings to a close the second phase of India’s lunar exploration programme. The third phase will begin with a collaboration between ISRO and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for the Lunar Polar Exploration (LUPEX) mission, which also involves a lander and a rover that will study water-ice at the moon’s South Pole. LUPEX is set to use the landing system that ISRO developed for Chandrayaan-2 and -3. This is an important reason why the failure of the surface component of the Chandrayaan-2 mission placed its successor under great pressure. It is notable that this is the gear that Russia was to provide for Chandrayaan-2, but could not in the aftermath of its ill-fated Fobos-Grunt mission in 2011, prompting ISRO to develop one on its own. Finally, ISRO is on a roughly fixed path vis-à-vis future missions from which deviations — such as those as a result of Chandrayaan-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the sluggish production of rockets — are financially and politically expensive. The success of Chandrayaan-3 gives ISRO the confidence to graduate to the next steps: satellites powered by electric motors, quantum communications, human space flight, reusable launch vehicles, planetary habitation, and interplanetary communications, to name a few. The commerce of space also demands a greater launch cadence and lower launch costs. Private sector contributions to many of these aspects will be crucial, especially to accelerate innovation and open new vistas in which this renewed vector of human enterprise can contribute to India’s development. India is over the moon. From now on, ISRO will have the chance to lead from the front.

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