Science

Why Chandrayaan-2 could leave India moonstruck

M.Ramesh Chennai | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

ISRO’s scientists work on the orbiter vehicle and lander of Chandrayaan-2, at ISRO Satellite Integration and Test Establishment (ISITE), in Bengaluru K_MURALI_KUMAR K_MURALI_KUMAR

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 for food, till his colleagues’ spacecraft comes back to the Martian atmosphere 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, the Indian space agency, ISRO’s second lunar sally, to find if there is water in the never-before-seen south pole of the Moon – essentially, building upon the findings of Chandrayaan-1, which sniffed lunar water from afar. If there is water to sustain life, you can build an outpost, where you could 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 the earth’s.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission could be epochal in the history of space conquests, as it could tell the world where to find abundant water on the Moon.

The Rs 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, on the eastern coast of India. About 170 km above earth, the rocket will spit out the satellite, Chandrayaan-2, which consists of three components – the orbiter, lander (christened Vikram) and rover (named Pragyan).

Left to itself, Chandrayaan-2 will start going round 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, leaving out the earth. On September 6, the satellite will be about 100 km above the moon — at that point, the ‘lander’, which carries the ‘rover’, will detach itself from the orbiter, and fall 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 to the lunar surface on its wheels, picking up samples of soil and rock, and conducting experiments for one full lunar day, which is 14 earth days. It will tell the lander what it finds, the lander will in turn 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 their 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, which is not available on earth, but believed to be a big fuel for clean energy. But ISRO has 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.

Beating blue

Only the US has sent men to the moon. 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 the billionaire, Jeff Bezos, the man who gave Amazon.com to the world. Blue Origin also wants to land on the south pole of the moon. So is 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 minus 156 degrees C. The hope is that these places could hold ice — estimates vary between 10,000 tonnes to 100 million tonnes.

If Chandrayaan-2 succeeds in telling the world something like ‘here is where you could find so much water’, then it would have earned itself a special spot in space exploration. Then, if a tiny colony comes up next to a lunar oasis, rescuing a Mark Watney from Mars may not be such a big deal!

Published on July 12, 2019
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