India leads the world to Moon’s South Pole

The perfect soft touch down of the Chandrayan 3 mission on the moon’s surface on 23 August 2023 at the scheduled time of 6:04 pm demonstrates India’s prowess in space research and technology that matured over the last 61 years since the inception of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in 1962. The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) set up by the Government of India in 1962 as envisioned by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and later rechristened as ISRO in 1969 achieved remarkable successes from the very first indigenouslybuilt Rohini satellite series to Chandrayan and the recent Mangalyan mission to Mars in the last decade. With Wednesday’s success, India entered the history books as the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon’s South Pole after the Russian Luna-25 crashed in its final approach in a similar mission last week following an engine malfunction. India also became the fourth member of the elite space club rubbing shoulders with the USA, Russia, and China on moon missions. We owe this grand success to the advanced technology developed indigenously at ISRO with the capabilities to examine and solve critical problems, and the determination and hard work of our scientists. This has brought India to the top position in the space race concerning cost per launch and the number of launches in one go.

India spent about US$75 million or INR 615 crores on Chandrayan 3 which is less than the cost of the Indian movie Adipurush that had a claimed budget of INR700 crores! ISRO spends an average ofUS$3 million per satellite against SpaceX’s expenditure of about US$65 million. In 2017 ISRO sent 104 satellites into space in one go that included 96 from the US breaking the Russian record of 36 satellites. In 2014 India stunned the world with its unmanned Mangalyan spacecraft entering Mars orbit for US$74 million which is less than a sixth of the US$455 million spent on the Mars probe by NASA; far cheaper than the budget of the Hollywood blockbuster movie Gravity that was made for US$100 million. That the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) achieved success in its very first attempt in comparison to the multiple attempts by all other space agencies is a tribute to the ingenuity of Indian scientists working with all odds and limitations ranging from shoestring budget to technology denial. Though the designed mission life of MOM was 6 months, the orbiter functioned for 8 years till 2022 when it was declared as spacecraft non-recoverable.

The development of different types of launch vehicles at ISROlike PSLV, GSLV-MKII, and GSLV-MKIII (LVM3)laid the foundation for the success of Indian satellite launches. The PSLV is today, the most reliable launch vehicle with 43 successful missions and a single failure. ISRO is working on the game-changing Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) and carried out a technology demonstration on the landing experiment in April 2023. The RLV will have only two stages to propel the vehicle into orbit. Once the fuel in the first stage is expended, the vehicle will shed it, and carry on with the second stage. Once it has been shed, the first stage will autonomously re-enter the atmosphere and land at a pre-determined location. After some maintenance, it will be available for reuse. This will greatly reduce the cost of future space missions and India will have a great competitive edge over others in space business. The Chandrayan 3 has fulfilled both its objectives; firstly it has demonstrated end-to-end capability in safe landing and roving on the lunar surface that will follow, soon. This will now open up India to more foreign investment in the space sector and increase its share in the global launch market. With its low cost and high performance capability India will lead the world in the space sector in the coming few years. Secondly, the data accrued from the payloads onboard Vikram and Pragyan will allow Indian scientists to work on cutting-edge planetary science in collaboration with the best in the world on equal footing. Some of the research areas would be on the moon’s near-surface plasma and its changes with time, thermal properties of the lunar surface near-polar region, moonquakes, and structure of the lunar crust and mantle to understand the dynamics of the Moon system. The qualitative and quantitative elemental analysis and chemical composition of soil and regolith will help in assessing the mineral resources and understanding of geology of the moon

India played a major role in finding water on the moon when a NASA instrument onboard the ISRO Chandrayan 1 probe detected traces of it in 2008. Since then, a race is on with rejuvenated interest in sending moon missions, especially to the South Pole, which holds the key to lunar water ice. This could be a hugely valuable resource for supporting a future lunar colony or a transit space station for eventual missions to Mars and other planets in our galaxy. The success of Chandrayan 3 is likely to enthuse generations Z and Alpha to pursue science that would benefit the country. This success will also give a great boost to other space programs that are in the offing, like the first Indian human space program Gaganyaan, and Aditya-L1, the first space-based Indian observatory to study the Sun that is waiting to be launched soon. The fact that India recovered from the setback of Chandrayan 2 within 4 years, notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic and a shoestring budget is truly remarkable and shows the steely resolve of both the Indian scientists and the government to put India on top of the world within the available resources. A beaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Indian scientists and the people of India from South Africa with excitement so visible on his face and declared India’s success as the success of all humanity. This is India’s moment of glory; let each one of us rejoice, relish, and bask in this glory without taking potshots or cracking jokes with malicious intentions not befitting the occasion. The moment will also lose its sheen if this momentous occasion is turned into a battle of words on either social platforms or national TV channels by initiating senseless debates during prime time indulging in political whataboutery on taking credit of this success. The day belongs to Indian science and the scientists who are always dedicated to serving the country and humanity, as rightly voiced by our Prime Minister. Let us cheer them. (Today’s edit was penned by renowned scientist, Dr. RK Chadha – Editor)