Presumed dead in a storm, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars by his colleagues in the 2015 box-office hit sci-fi movie Martian . Alone on the red planet, Mark sustains himself by ‘making’ water and growing potatoes till his colleagues’ spacecraft comes back to effect a hi-drama rescue.
Fiction today could be reality tomorrow and some day there could be a human outpost on Earth’s rocky neighbour. When that happens, guess who will be gratefully remembered? Chandrayaan-2.
For, it is one of the more important objectives of Chandrayaan-2, ISRO’s second lunar sally, to find if there is water in the never-seen-before south pole of the Moon. The mission is essentially building upon the findings of Chandrayaan-1, which sniffed lunar water from afar. If there is water to sustain life, you can put up an outpost to build rockets to jump to other planets like Mars — an extra-terrestrial leap is six times easier from the Moon, because the Moon’s gravity is a sixth of Earth’s. The Chandrayaan-2 mission could be epochal as it could tell the world where to find water on the Moon. The ₹603-crore moon mission will happen on July 15, when India’s biggest rocket, the GSLV-Mk-III, capable of lifting up to 4 tonnes to 36,000 km above the earth, will lift off from ISRO’s launch station at Sriharikota. About 170 km above the Earth, the rocket will eject the satellite, Chandrayaan-2, which consists of three components — the orbiter, the lander (christened Vikram) and the rover (Pragyan).
Chandrayaan-2 will start orbiting the Earth in an elliptical orbit. At appropriate points, ISRO will fire the on-board rockets to enlarge the orbit gradually, so that eventually, the orbit encompasses both the Earth and the Moon. Further firing of on-board rockets will make Chandrayaan-2 only circle the Moon.
On September 6, the satellite will be about 100 km above the moon. At that point, the ‘lander’, which is carrying the ‘rover’, will detach itself from the orbiter, and drop onto the moon, slowly. While the orbiter will continue to circle the moon, the lander will release the rover. The rover, as big as a briefcase and weighing 25 kg, will crawl out on its wheels, crawl down the lunar surface, pick up samples of soil and rock, and conduct some experiments, for one full lunar day, which is 14 earth days. It will tell the lander what it finds, the lander will tell the orbiter up above, and the orbiter will tell ISRO. While the lander and the rover, which carry five and two instruments respectively, will fall silent after its one-day work, the orbiter, with five gadgets, will continue to circle the moon for one year, taking and relaying photos.
There was some speculation (and hope) that the Chandrayaan-2 mission will look for Helium-3, believed to be a key fuel for clean energy but which is not available on Earth; ISRO has, however, categorically said that Helium-3 is not a part of the mission. The rover will do in-situ (right there) analysis of other minerals, notably, sodium, magnesium, aluminium and silicon.
Only the US has sent man to the Moon. Only the former Soviet Union and China have landed instruments on the Moon. Israel tried in April this year, but failed. India, therefore, could be only the fourth country to step on the Moon.
In doing so, it will also have beaten Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire, Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin also wants to land on the south pole of the Moon. So also Israel, which is trying to take another shy at the moon.
Finding water on the Moon is a big thing. There are spots, inside some craters, where the warmest it gets is —156 degrees C. The hope is that these places could hold ice-estimates varying from 10,000 tonnes to 100 million tonnes.
If the Chandrayaan-2 succeeds in telling the world something like ‘here is where you could find water’, then it would have earned itself a special spot in space exploration.
If a tiny colony comes up next to a lunar oasis, rescuing a Mark Watney from Mars may not be such a big deal.
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