India is about to send its latest Moon mission, Chandrayaan 2, into orbit. The “most complex” project in the history of the nation’s space program might lead to groundbreaking discoveries – but others might reap its benefits.
Chandrayaan 2 will take off from the Sriharikota launch site, located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal 80 kilometers north of Chennai, using India’s most powerful rocket – the GSLV Mk.3. The launch is scheduled for 02:51 local time on July 15 (21:21 GMT July 14). If the mission goes as planned, the lander will touch down on the Moon’s surface about 70 degrees south of the equator on September 6.
Ahead of the launch, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) issued a video presenting the mission in the form of a trailer for a sci-fi blockbuster. An off-screen female voice refers to the Chandrayaan 2 as a mission “capturing the imagination of millions of Indians,” which is sent to “explore a new world, a new home…”
The ambitious project, which ISRO head Kailasavadivoo Sivan called “the most complex mission” his agency has “ever undertaken,” involves delivering an orbiter, a lander, and a rover to the Moon.
The three mission components carry an array of scientific instruments, including spectrometers, radars, plasma sensors, and cameras, some of which are able to analyze the Moon’s surface at the level of its elemental composition.
The impressive tool kit is expected to help India’s mission to achieve one of its most challenging tasks – to find potentially usable water on the Earth’s satellite. This could lead to a breakthrough in future Moon and space exploration, not just for India but for the whole world.
This discovery would greatly advance humanity’s plans for establishing a manned base on the Moon and further exploring more remote areas of the solar system. Water is very heavy when it comes to taking it from the Earth into space – and that means significant additional expenditures for any ambitious manned space mission, in terms of both life support and fuel.
Finding usable water on the Moon would relieve humanity of this burden and potentially open up additional opportunities for using it to produce oxygen as well as hydrogen used in rocket propellants, right on Earth’s natural satellite.
If successful in this endeavor, India will go down in history as a nation that made a pioneering discovery in space exploration. More so since it was India’s previous Moon mission – Chandrayaan 1, launched in 2008 – that found water-bearing molecules on the Moon’s poles in the first place.
Joining the club
Whether Chandrayaan 2 succeeds in finding usable water on the Moon is another question. Although NASA currently believes there could be more than 300 million tons of water ice on the Earth’s satellite brought there by comets and other celestial objects, the real state of things on the ground is yet to be determined.
Even if no groundbreaking discovery occurs, New Delhi will still have something to brag about. The Indian mission aims for a touchdown in an unexplored region of the Moon, closer to the lunar south pole than any other nation. Earlier this year, China managed to successfully land a probe on the far side of the Moon and in its southern hemisphere.
“It is not only a launch mission. We are going to land precisely at a place where nobody’s ever gone,” Sivan said in May.
The landing area 350 kilometers from the rim of the South Pole-Aitken basin is believed to be one of the most ancient impact sites in the solar system.
Uncovering the solar system’s early history through examining the ancient materials left on the Moon’s surface could position India alongside the leaders of space exploration like Russia and the US.
Even a successful soft-landing on the Moon’s surface would allow New Delhi to join an elite club of leading space nations as only the fourth country to do so after the Soviet Union (1959), the US (1969), and China (2013).
Success would “raise the profile” of New Delhi’s space program “in addition to illustrating the cost-effective nature of the Indian missions,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at India’s Observer Research Foundation, believes.
“It will also have an immense impact on understanding the nation’s capabilities in terms of dealing with the [space] technologies,” Harsha Kakar, a retired major general of the Indian Armed Forces, told RT.
On a practical note, though, some of the potential discoveries could eventually bring more benefits to the Russians and the Americans rather than to Indians themselves.
Specifically, any water found on the Moon is expected to primarily find its use in the manned missions and the prospective Moon base.
Space agency Roscosmos plans its Luna 25 mission, which is also aimed at landing close to the Moon’s South Pole and searching for water among other things, for 2021. NASA wants to put its own rover on the Moon by 2023.
New Delhi trails behind other nations when it comes to manned space missions. The first one ever that the ISRO plans is scheduled for late 2021 and would entail an autonomous capsule orbiting earth for about a week with a three-person crew on board.
Meanwhile, Russia announced its plans to create a permanent base on the Moon by the 2030s. In March, US Vice President Mike Pence also raised the idea of a permanent US base on the Earth’s satellite in the coming decades, although he did not give a specific date. He did speak of “returning” US astronauts to the Moon’s surface by 2024.
Although both projects appear to be in the early stages of development, India is unlikely to beat its competitors in this field.
“If water is discovered on the Moon, India would not exploit it on its own, it would definitely be in partnership with like-minded nations – either the US or Russia or a combination of both – it is going to be an international effort,” Kakar believes.
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