India set to take its lunar mission forward amidst a global race to the moon

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

K Sivan, ISRO Chairman

Exactly 50 years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, planet Earth’s solo satellite is seeing a resurgence of global interest from the top space powers to emerging ones, as well as billionaires.

India could well set off a new race with its ambitious July 15 launch of Chandrayaan-2 (Moon Mission) attempting to soft land on the Southern Polar region of the lunar surface, where no nation has dared to go so far. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is fully geared and its Chairman, K Sivan, exudes confidence about a successful launch.

The US, which put the first human on the moon on July 20, 1969, with its Apollo Mission, has been given a 2024 deadline by US President, Donald Trump, to return astronauts to the celestial body that orbits our planet.

Among the nations that are keen to explore the moon, which is about 384,500 kms from us, are the US, Russia, China, India, South Korea, Israel as well as billionaires and corporate giants, including Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

The world’s richest man and founder of Amazon said in May, "It's time to go back to the moon." His aerospace firm Blue Origin has big dreams and would in the near future transport people to the moon on Blue Moon, the reusable rocket launcher.

The first half of 2019 has already seen a wave of interest. The Chinese made a historic landing on the lunar far side in January with its Chang’e series. It is also preparing hard to launch a first-of-its-kind sample return mission by the end of the year as well as to the Southern side.

There was a failure, too, in April when a private company built lander launched by the Israelis crash landed. South Korea is reportedly developing its first lunar probe for launch in early 2020.

The Russians, among the pioneers and a space super power, began exploration of the moon in 1959 with their Luna probes. However, the space forays slowed down post the break up of the erstwhile Soviet Union. It is working on a series of landers that would be its first return to the moon in decades

India’s push

Prime Minister Narendra Modi fully backs India’s space odyssey, especially the Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan (Mars Mission) and Gaganyaan (Man in space) missions, and wants India to be a space power to reckon soon. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is fully geared for the 2.51 am, July 15 launch.

India hopes to become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to land on the moon. The 600-tonne GSLV MKIII rocket, which is undergoing a countdown as it readies to fire the Orbiter, with the lander ( Vikram, after Vikram Sarabhai) and rover (Pragyan or wisdom) stacked on-board.

The journey to the lunar surface is expected to take about 50 days and the scheduled landing is on September 6 or 7. The lander and rover have the Indian tricolour painted on them. The wheels of the rover will have the Asoka Chakra.

India’s Rs 1000-cr mission, led by two women, Mission Director Ritu Karidhal and Project Director, Muthayya Vanitha, rides both on confidence and expectation. Confidence, derived from the big success of Chandrayaan 1 in 2008. Expectation, because it hopes to unlock more in the shadowed Southern Polar region.

In a way, India can take credit for reviving some excitement on the moon, after a few decades of the popular Apollo missions of the US during 1969 to 72. If Chandrayaan 2 does discover more water and conditions suitable for future habitation, it would, indeed, be a big leap forward.

On the other side of the lunar surface, there are at least a hundred sites where memorabilia left behind by the Apollo crew, crashed landers and other objects, perhaps, are lying around and need to be preserved as heritage, says For All Mankind, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to preserve human heritage in space.

The US rush

With the deadline of 2024 to put astronauts, including the first woman on the moon, the US will begin by sending a set of robotic probes in the run-up. Buckling under pressure from President Trump, NASA has replaced the head of its human space exploration directorate, Bill Gerstenmaier, in a major shake-up, US media reported on Wednesday.

Named Artemis, the multi-billion dollar project will be the first attempt since the last Apollo landing in 1972. The American plan is beset with delays and challenges, say analysts.

For example, costs are escalating. The cost of Boeing’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, has risen by nearly 30 per cent to $8 billion, and its delayed first flight is unlikely to take place by June 2020, as planned. Similarly, the costs for the Orion capsule being built by Lockheed Martin to transport astronauts, have also grown. However, President Trump has assured enhancing fund support.

Overall, it’s the moon and space calling as nations look for resources and habitation opportunities outside our planet, which is under pressure from the growing population and climate change.

Published on July 12, 2019

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