Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched India’s planned second mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 2, on July 22, 2019. This mission is a follow-up to the Chandrayaan 1 that was completed in 2009 and was about confirming the existence of water/hydroxyl on the moon. The launch happened from the Satish Dhawan Space Center situated in Sriharkota, India, through a GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket.
As per ISRO, this new mission comprises of a Rover, a lander and an orbiter. While the orbiter will carry out mapping operations from a height of 62 miles (100 km) above the lunar surface, the lander will attempt a soft landing on the moon, and will then release the Rover on it.
The GSLV Mk III rocket took off at 2:43 PM IST on July 22, and the launch happened after a week-long delay owing to a glitch in the rocket. The mission marks the beginning of a historical journey for ISRO as well as India, as the organization will attempt a landing on the moon’s South Pole, a first for the humankind. If everything goes as per plan, the spacecraft is expected to reach the lunar orbit by September 6, and will successfully put down the lander-rover close to moon’s South Pole soon thereafter.
Successfully managing a touchdown on the Moon’s surface will be a historic moment for the country, as only China, Soviet Union/Russia and United States have carried out such soft landing of a craft on the lunar surface before. However, none of those touchdowns were in the South Polar area, believed to have large amounts of water ice in its permanently shadowed craters.
It’s been a long wait for India!
India had already carried out one robotic moon mission successfully 10 years ago. Chandrayaan 1 was launched in October 2008 and continued its operation till August 2009. It comprised of an impactor and an orbiter, both of which confirmed the presence of water ice on the lunar surface.
As per ISRO, the 11 year long wait for their second trip to the moon wasn’t planned. Chandrayaan 2 was actually scheduled for launch in 2013 and the mission was to be in partnership with Russia which had to supply lander to the organization. However, things changed drastically after Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars failed badly in 2011. The rocket never made it past the Earth’s orbit. Later, with Russia deciding to perform a comprehensive review of its failed mission, the Russian officials concluded that they couldn’t even possibly meet a revised launch date in 2015 for Chandrayaan 2. Thereafter, India decided to go solo, with some reports even suggesting that European Space Agency and NASA were interested in partnering with ISRO as well.
The Chandrayaan 2 mission will cost India approximately ₹ 10 billion, close to $ 145 million going by the current exchange rates.
Carrying plenty of gear
After settling into the circular orbit over the moon, Chandrayaan 2 will deploy the lander-rover, and the duo is expected to touchdown the moon’s surface on a plain in between the Simpelius N and Manzinus C craters, around 70° south of the moon’s equator, and around 600 km from the lunar South Pole.
It would in fact be the first time ever that any lunar mission will attempt a touchdown so far away from the equator. As per ISRO, they would like to use this experience to accomplish more challenging missions like touching down on Mars or on an asteroid in the future, or even to send a spacecraft to Venus.
The lander has been given the name Vikram, after Mr Vikram Sarabhai, widely recognized as the father of the Indian space program.
Pragyan is the name given to the rover, which means wisdom in Sanskrit. It will roll down onto the Moon’s surface, through a ramp released by Vikram. Pragyan is solar powered, has six wheels and can travel as far as 500 m on the surface of the moon. It will be communicating only with Vikram, the lander, which has the capability of beaming data to Chandrayaan 2 orbiter as well as Indian Deep Space Network on earth.
Each one of the three vehicles, orbiter, lander and rover, are packed with different types of scientific gear. While the orbiter is carrying different types of scientific instruments, including various spectrometers and cameras, the rover has been fitted with two instruments, and the lander four. All the payloads have been developed indigenously by the Indian scientists, except the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) from NASA. The purpose of LRA is to enable researchers to figure out the exact location of the lander on the moon's surface and then calculate the precise distance between the moon and the earth. The same kind of instrument was also sent aboard the Beresheet lander of Israel, however, it crashed while attempting a touchdown on the lunar surface, earlier in April this year.
The duration of the mission
The time duration of the Chandrayaan 2 mission is 1 earth year, that being the time period for which the orbiter has been designed to stay in operation. Pragyan and Vikram on the other hand will continue working for close to half a lunar day, i.e. 14 earth days. Both the lander and rover are not expected to survive longer than that considering the cold and long night on the dark side of the moon.
All the data gathered from the three spacecrafts will help ISRO build upon knowledge gained from the Chandrayaan 1 mission, and as explained earlier, help them in more ambitious missions in the future.
Although India will beat NASA to study the resource-rich south polar region of the moon, the American space agency is also planning to send astronauts to that region in 2024, in an effort to build a sustainable and long-term presence on and around the moon, in the future.