Big leap for ISRO and India: Chandrayaan-2 majestically takes off for the moon

In a proud moment for the Indian Space Research Organisation and the entire country, the Chandrayaan-2, India's most ambitious lunar mission to date, lifted off successfully at 2.43 pm on Monday. This success puts India in a league of elite nations in the world of space research and development. This comes a week after the first launch of the mission — scheduled for July 15 at 2.51 am — was called off due to a technical snag and was rescheduled for Monday. 

What makes the current mission out of the ordinary is that it will be the first space mission to conduct a soft landing on the moon's South Polar region. It is also the first Indian expedition to attempt a soft landing on the lunar surface with home-grown technology. Space enthusiasts say this is one of the most complex missions till date even by ISRO’s standards, which had captured the world’s attention by launching 104 satellites in one go. 

At around 16 minutes after the lift-off, the spacecraft, separated from the launch vehicle, was injected into the earth’s orbit. The heavy-lift rocket Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle - Mark III (GSLV Mk III), nicknamed 'Baahubali' passed through the ignition and separation stages seamlessly. One of the most crucial and tricky stages is the C25, the cryogenic stage ignition, took place at 5.18 minutes after lift-off, giving the rocket a final thrust before it is shut off at 15.9 minutes after lift-off. Seconds later, at around 16 minutes after lift off, the spacecraft separates from the launch vehicle and is placed into the earth’s orbit. 

The mission has three modules – an orbiter, a lander (Vikram), and a rover (Pragyan). The lander, Vikram, is expected to touch base near the South Pole of the moon, which is the darker side of the moon, on September 6, 2019. The lunar South Pole is especially interesting because of the lunar surface area here remains in shadow, and is much larger than that at the North Pole, according to ISRO.

The mission will go down in textbooks for a bevy of reasons: This is India’s first complex robotic mission to space; the first space mission to be entirely headed by women; first space mission to conduct a soft landing on the moon's South Polar region. 

Chandrayaan-2’s most spectacular selling point is that it costs less than a Hollywood movie. While Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi film Interstellar was made on a budget of $165 million (close to Rs 1,062 crore), this lunar mission was carried out at a cost of Rs 978 crore. Of this, Rs 603 crore went into the orbiter, lander, rover, navigation and ground support network and Rs 375 crore into the heavy rocket – Geo-stationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with an indigenous cryogenic engine.

Almost the entire orbiter, lander and rover were designed and made in India. With a mission life of about one year, India’s ‘Baahubali’ rocket, the GSLV Mk-III, was used to carry the 2.4-tonne orbiter.

What makes it challenging?

To start with, the distance between the earth and the moon is about 3.844 lakh km. Ensuring trajectory accuracy while travelling such a long distance is a challenge, as the trajectory is influenced by the non-uniform gravity of the earth and the moon, gravitational pull of other astronomical bodies, solar radiation pressure, and the moon's true orbital motion.

The next challenge is the deep space communication link between the ISRO and Chandrayaan-2. Owing to the distance, and limited on-board power, radio signals will be weak with heavy background noise. The signals have to be picked up by large antennas.

Rewards on the cards

Scientists are strong on the possibility of the presence of water in the permanently shadowed areas of the moon. In addition, the South Pole region has craters that are cold traps and contain a fossil record of the early Solar System.

In a prior statement, ISRO said Chandrayaan-2 will "boldly go where no country has ever gone before – the moon's South Polar region".

"Through this effort, the aim is to improve our understanding of the moon – discoveries that will benefit India and humanity as a whole. These insights and experiences aim at a paradigm shift in how lunar expeditions are approached for years to come – propelling further voyages into the farthest frontiers.

"Chandrayaan-2 attempts to foster a new age of discovery, increase our understanding of space, stimulate the advancement of technology, promote global alliances, and inspire a future generation of explorers and scientists," it added.

Chandrayaan-2 has several science payloads to expand the lunar scientific knowledge through a detailed study of topography, seismography, mineral identification and distribution, surface chemical composition, thermo-physical characteristics of topsoil and composition of the tenuous lunar atmosphere, leading to a new understanding of the origin and evolution of the moon.

(With IANS inputs)