India will launch a lunar mission on July 15, attempting to become the fourth country to land on the moon after the former Soviet Union, US and China, to cement its place among the world’s space faring nations.
The Chandrayaan-2 mission aims to deliver a rover to an elevated plane close to the uncharted lunar South Pole on September 6 or 7 and investigate the surface for signs of water and potentially new sources of abundant energy. It’s one step in an envisioned progression that includes putting a space station in orbit and — eventually — landing a crew on the moon.
"We will launch our second moon mission (Chandrayaan-2) on July 15 at 02:15 a.m., to land by September 6 or 7 near the lunar south pole, where no one went so far", said Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) Chairman K Sivan.
Chandrayaan, which means “moon vehicle” in Sanskrit, exemplifies the resurgence of international interest in space. The US, China and private corporations are among those racing to explore everything from resource mining to extraterrestrial colonies on the moon and even Mars. “We have left no stone unturned to make the lunar soft landing a success,” Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, the country’s equivalent to Nasa, told reporters at the headquarters in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru.
Most complex mission by ISRO
The upcoming moon mission is the most complex ISRO has attempted. Two Chandrayaan modules — an orbiter and a lander — will be stacked together inside a launch vehicle equipped to lift heavy satellites into orbit. A third module, the lunar rover, will roll out on landing and operate for at least 14 days on the surface. It will wander about 1,300 feet, surveying a surface that reaches minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 157 degrees Celsius) in the shadows.
"The orbiter with lander and rover will be launched onboard our advanced heavy rocket (GSLV Mark III) from the Sriharikota spaceport to inject it in the earth's elliptical orbit at 170km perigee (nearest to earth) and 30,000km apogee (farthest from earth) for cruising towards the moon over the next 16 days," said Sivan. Sriharikota is an island off the Bay of Bengal in Andhra Pradesh and about 80km northeast of Chennai.
Isro has named the lander "Vikram", after India's space pioneer Vikram Sarabhai (1919-1971) and rover 'Pragyan', which in Sanskrit means wisdom.
"The rocket will place the orbiter in the geo-transfer orbit for its passage to the lunar orbit, covering 385,000km from earth to moon in 50 days for the lander to have a soft landing near its south pole," said Sivan.
The lander will separate from the orbiter through manouvres, when it is at 150km periloon (nearest the moon's surface) and 18,000 apoloon (farthest from lunar surface) and land on the moon in 4 days after it (orbiter) enters the lunar orbit at 100km from its surface and descends slowly up to 30km for soft landing.
"The six-wheel rover will roll out of it (lander) in 4 hours after landing at a pre-determined site which is free from rocks and is between craters. It will roll 1cm per second and speed up to cover 500 metres.
The experiments (payloads) will be on the mineralogical and elemental studies of the lunar surface.
Interestingly, the lander as well as the rover will have the Indian national flag (Tricolour) painted on them. Ashoka Chakra will be imprinted on the rover's wheels.
Cost of the mission
The cost of Chandrayaan-2 mission is Rs 978 crore, including Rs 603 crore for the orbiter, lander, rover, navigation and ground support network and Rs 375 crore for the heavy rocket -- Geo-stationary Satellite Launch Vehicle with an indigenous cryogenic engine
Two women are heading this exercise
And heading this exercise are two women — mission director Ritu Karidhal and the project director Muthayya Vanitha, Sivan said. Women employees account for nearly 30% of India’s space agency’s total workforce.
Searching for Water
The idea is to explore virgin territory on the lunar surface and analyze crust samples for signs of water and helium-3. That isotope is limited on Earth yet so abundant on the moon that it theoretically could meet global energy demands for 250 years if harnessed.
The rover will send pictures of the lunar surface within 20 minutes of landing. The landing area in South Pole was chosen as it has no craters or boulders and is nearly flat with very good visibility due to solar light, he added.
Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 orbited the moon and ejected a probe that discovered water-bearing molecules in craters at the moon’s poles, with the highest density inside permanently shadowed craters at the South Pole. The presence of water would be invaluable as missions advance to the next phase: building a station for mission crews.
Government-backed space agencies are jostling with private missions to conquer the cosmos. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has announced he’s sending a spaceship to the moon, and billionaires Elon Musk and Richard Branson are preparing to launch satellites or send astronauts and paying tourists into space. The Trump administration has pushed for a return to the moon.
This year alone, Israeli and Chinese missions have targeted the satellite, Earth’s closest neighbor. In April, Israel’s first moon-landing attempt ended in a crash. China plans to launch the Chang’e-5 probe to the moon later this year, with three more in the offing. At least two of them will land on the moon’s South Pole and conduct research.
India’s space agency has ambitious plans for a robotic mission to Venus, and returning to Mars with a rover. A craft called Mangalyaan orbited Mars after its 2013 launch, scouring the atmosphere for methane and carbon dioxide to help determine whether life ever existed there.
Isro’s next priority is the $1.4 billion Gaganyaan mission, which aims to put three Indian “gaganauts” — at least one of which will be a woman — into orbit.