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Space is roomy enough for three Asian giants

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Japan is ahead, followed by China, India in the race for lunar probes.

M. Ramesh

Chennai, Oct. 21 Sometime around November 10, when Chandrayaan-1 would say “hello” to moon, it will join the company of two other Asian lunar observers — Japan’s Kaguya and China’s Chang’e 1.

How well do the lunar programmes of the three Asian giants fit in with the profiles of the nations!

Japan, the big guy — one who is not doing all that well today, but nevertheless, the topper. China, the aggressive challenger, the one in a hurry. India, the cautious and slow, but nevertheless, sure-footed.

When Japan launched Kaguya in September last, it was said to be the biggest lunar programme after the Apollo mission of the US that ended in 1972. The satellite has sent home some stunning pictures of the moon and earth-rise and set, as viewed from the moon. These videos are available on the Web site of the JAXA — the Japanese Space Exploration Agency.

The Kaguya (previously called ‘Selene’) is also the biggest and costliest of the three Asian satellites. It cost $478 million, weighs three tonnes, and has the most number of instruments to carry out experiments — 15.

In comparison, China’s Chang’e-1 cost $187 million and weighs 2.3 tonnes. The Chandrayaan-1 costs less than $100 million and weighs 1.4 tonnes, with 11 instruments on board.

However, Japan’s dash to the moon has been beset with a number of problems. Indeed, the country had to cancel an earlier mission, Lunar-A, because it could not get the instruments made.

The satellite was to drop two ‘penetrators’ at two diametrically opposite on the lunar surface. These would embed themselves in the soil and keep measuring seismic action, thereby, helping to construct a picture of the moon’s insides.

Lunar-A was originally scheduled to be launched in 1995, but was scrapped in January 2007, because while the mother ship was ready, the penetrators could not be made. Because of the delay, the mother ship itself fell into disrepair.

A clutch of other Japanese space programmes have run into problems. Three years ago, a mission to Mars had to be abandoned because the satellite went wayward. A current mission to bring back samples from an asteroid will be lost in space and another spy satellite developed a snag in its electrical system.

China’s rocketing history, unlike India’s, has seen quite a few accidents, at least one of them resulting in large scale deaths. This was in February 1996, when a Long March 3B rocket swung off-course and landed in a village.

The Chinese Xinhua news agency reported 57 deaths, but many believe that the toll was more than 500. China has since pulled itself up and, as has been well reported, has put its astronauts in space, a feat it shares only two other countries — the US and Russia.

Its Chang’e-1, launched exactly a year ago – on October 24, 2007 – has been a veritable success, although it has been reported that during the last lunar eclipse it lost sun and ended up using much of its battery power.

The Chandrayaan-1 will be a smaller satellite, but with a longer life — two years, compared with one year of Kaguya and Chang’e-1. It weighs only 1.4 tonnes, but India has capability to launch a satellite as heavy as the Chang’e-1 — using the GSLV rocket.

In launch vehicles, China is ahead of India, with its Long March 3B rocket, which can carry satellites weighing 5.1 tonnes. India is trying to catch up with the development of the GSLV Mark-III, which can deliver four-tonne satellites. Conceivably, by the time the Mark-III is ready, China would have developed the Long March 3 B(A), a bigger launch vehicle.

Japan’s H-11A can already carry four tonne satellites and its augmented version can carry even up to six tonnes. (Incidentally, this rocket too, developed a snag in one flight in 2003 and had to be destroyed mid-air). But the bigger H-11B is under development.

With the launch of lunar probes by the three Asian giants within one year, the race has just begun. Japan is ahead, followed by China, and then by India, but in this marathon, who knows what upsets will take place? (By the way, Korea is set to join the race). All three countries have ambitious plans for the future.

China, for example, next wants to send a robot to land on the moon, and in later years, another robot that would return with samples. India has already announced Chandrayaan-II whose contours are yet to be made clear. Incidentally, both countries have tie-ups with a common collaborator – Russia.

But none of all this is any determinant of leadership. The objective of these missions is knowledge acquisition and, clearly, the winner will be one who knows the most.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 22, 2008)
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