Explained: Chandrayaan 3 Mission & ISRO’s Rekindled Hope

It was a grim day for Indians across the world, on 6 September 2019, when the vessel that carried their hopes – and precious equipment to study the surface of the moon – stopped responding during the last stages of an otherwise successful mission.

Video footage showed PM Narendra Modi consoling Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Sivan, as he broke down, hours after contact with Chandrayaan 2’s Vikram lander was lost.

Its remains were found scattered on the surface of the moon twenty days later, confirming that India had failed to become the first nation to successfully execute a soft-landing on the moon in its maiden attempt.

But it is the dawn of a new decade and ISRO appears to have taken stock and bounced back with a commitment to work on more than 25 projects this year, including India’s first manned mission to space – the ambitious Gaganyaan.

In an official announcement, on 1 January, Sivan said that the government has approved Chandrayaan 3 – a second attempt to land on the lunar surface.

The mission will attempt to accomplish what its predecessor failed to do. Here’s a look at India’s second wind:

How is Chandrayaan 3 Coming Along?

Addressing a press conference in Bengaluru on the first day of the year, ISRO Chairman Sivan said that the work related to Chandrayaan 3 is coming along smoothly.

Sivan said that the new mission’s configuration will be similar to that of its predecessor with a lander, rover and a propulsion module. This mission, however, won’t require an orbiter, as the one deployed by Chandrayaan 2 is working just fine.

He added that ISRO is planning to land the Chandrayaan 3 lander at the same location as the Chandrayaan 2 – the lunar south pole, which is a singularly promising part of the moon’s surface.

"“The Lunar south pole is especially interesting... There could be a possibility of presence of water in permanently shadowed areas around it. In addition, South Pole region has craters that are cold traps and contain a fossil record of the early Solar System.”" - Chandrayaan 2, isro.gov.in

The area is relatively unexplored and has mainly just been studied by orbiters. Only China, in January 2019, was able to successfully soft-land near the lunar south pole with its Chang’e 4 mission.

Even though many details about Chandrayaan 3 remain undisclosed, Sivan did reveal that the mission is estimated to cost around Rs 615 crore – a lot cheaper than its predecessor, which cost the government Rs 970 crore.

The sharp fall in costs could be chalked down to the fact that ISRO doesn’t need to build a brand new orbiter.

Chandrayaan 3 is slated to launch sometime in 2021 and, if successful, will make India the fourth country to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon after the United States, USSR and China.

Where Did Chandrayaan 1 Leave ISRO?

Chandrayaan 1, which was launched on 22 October 2008, was India’s first lunar mission.

The spacecraft was a cube no larger than 1.5 square metres and carried the Moon Impact Probe, which hard-landed on the moon on 14 November 2008.

Chandrayaan 1’s Moon Impact Probe.

The lunar probe was originally supposed to orbit the Moon for two years and prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the near and far side of the Moon and to conduct a chemical and mineralogical mapping of the lunar surface.

However, after almost a year, the orbiter started suffering from several technical issues. It stopped communicating on 28 August 2009, after 312 days of operation.

According to ISRO, Chandrayaan 1 had already met most of its scientific objectives before it went offline, “Various mission planning and management objectives were also met. The mission goal of harnessing the science payloads, lunar craft and the launch vehicle with suitable ground support systems including Deep Space Network (DSN) station were realised, which were helpful for future explorations like the Mars Orbiter Mission.”

What Happened to Chandrayaan 2?

Chandrayaan 2 was a far bigger spectacle and represented a “significant technological leap” compared to ISRO’s past missions. It was launched by a GSLV Mk III on 22 July 2019, months after China’s successful soft-landing attempt.

The mission had three components; an orbiter, a lander (Vikram) and a rover (Pragyan) and was designed to expand lunar scientific knowledge through the detailed study of the Moon’s surface and atmosphere.

Pragyan Rover mounted on the Vikram lander. Both were lost.

The orbiter was successfully injected into the moon’s orbit. However, the lander, which was initially descending as planned, lost communication nearly two kilometres from the surface on 6 September 2019.

Some 21 days later, the remnants of the lander (which carried the rover) were located on the lunar south pole by a Chennai-based engineer.

It was later revealed that the Vikram lander had hard-landed on the moon because of a problem with the lander’s braking thrusters.

"“The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km above the moon surface. During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value.”" - Jitendra Singh, former minister of space

The Chandrayaan 2 mission remains partly successful as the orbiter is still functioning and is estimated to work well for the next seven years, which is seven times longer than its planned life of one year.

The failure of the lander has also provided the space agency with critical data which could prove invaluable for Chandrayaan 3.

“There is a lot of data that we have been able to get from the analysis of the hard-landing of the Vikram lander, since data is available right upto 400 metres before the landing. This data is valuable for ensuring the success of the next mission,’’ a senior ISRO scientist told The Indian Express.

What Did ISRO Achieve in 2019?

ISRO has been busier than ever in the past few years. It has made significant leaps in its launch vehicle technology and the complexity of its missions. During 2019, the space agency executed six launch vehicle and seven satellite missions.

In a year that marked the 50th launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), two new variants were introduced, according to Dr Sivan. ISRO also, for the first time, demonstrated that the spent fourth stage of the PSLV could be used as an “experimental orbital platform”.

The indigenously developed Vikram processor, used in on-board computers for navigation, guidance and control processing, was also flight-tested during the year.

And, in a demonstration of the practical benefits of ISRO’s undertakings, the International mobile standards body the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GGP) – an international mobile standards body – approved India’s regional navigation satellite system NavIC would facilitate the use of NavIC chips in mobile phones.

Here’s a timeline of the missions ISRO has executed in 2019:

  • 24 January 2019 - PSLV-C44 launched the Microsat-R Mission
  • 6 February 2019 - GSAT-31 Mission Launch
  • 1 April 2019 - PSLV-C45 launched the EMISAT Mission
  • 22 May 2019 - PSLV-C46 launched the RISAT-2B Mission
  • 22 July 2019 - GSLV-Mk III - M1 launched the Chandrayaan-2 Mission
  • 27 November 2019 - PSLV-C47 launched the Cartosat-3 Mission
  • 11 December 2019 - PSLV-C48 launched the RISAT-2BR1 Mission

What's Next for ISRO?

GAGANYAAN

The space agency is aiming big.

After Chandrayaan 3, Gaganyaan – India’s maiden manned mission to space – seems to be ISRO’s next ambitious leap.

The programme aims to demonstrate human space flight capability with three crew members for five to seven days in Low Earth Orbit (2,000 km above the surface) and safely recover them after the mission. There will reportedly be two unmanned test-runs before the final mission.

Sivan has already confirmed that the work on Chandrayaan 3 and Gaganyaan is going on simultaneously.

The design phase of Gaganyaan has been completed and four pilots of the Indian Air Force have been selected for training as crew, the ISRO chief told NDTV.

The overall configuration of GSLV-MK III rocket, crew escape system, crew module and service module for Gaganyaan have been finalised, an ISRO official told PTI.

Prime Minister Modi had set 2022 as the deadline for the mission.

ADITYA L1 & OTHER PROJECTS

ISRO has said it will work on at least 25 other projects this year.

One of the most prominent is India’s first mission to the sun. The programme is aimed at building the Aditya L1 satellite, which will study the solar corona (the outer layers of the sun).

ISRO’s rendition of the Aditya L1.

“In addition, particle payloads will study the particle flux emanating from the Sun and reaching the L1 orbit, and the magnetometer payload will measure the variation in magnetic field strength at the halo orbit around L1,” states ISRO’s webpage on the mission.

The satellite is scheduled to be launched this year by the PSLV-XL from Sriharikota.

Sivan also said that a second launch port, exclusively for the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), will be established in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district and the land acquisition has been initiated.

ISRO's 2020 plans also involve the development of new launch vehicles such as the SSLV, the communication satellite GSAT-20 and upgraded NavIC satellites, the Indian alternative to GPS, with indigenous atomic clocks.

Work will also be undertaken on XPOSAT, a planned space observatory to study cosmic X-rays.

Addressing the 50th convocation ceremony of IIT Delhi, Sivan had said, "Chandrayaan-2 is not the end of story. Our plans on the Aditya L1 solar mission and human spaceflight programme are on track. A large number of advance satellite launches are planned in the coming months."

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