Chandrayaan 2: Fifteen Minutes of Terror

Chandrayaan 2: Fifteen Minutes of Terror

T P Sreenivasan

The ISRO Chairman’s dread of the “fifteen minutes of terror” just before the Vikram lander touches down on the surface of the moon turned out to be real. The terror would have infected the whole nation if Prime Minister had not softened the blow by speaking of ISRO’s past achievements rather than its present setback. He set the right tone by congratulating the scientists on their professionalism, hard work and dedication. The scene of his consoling Dr. K.Sivan, who broke down at one point, will be an abiding image of Chandrayaan-2

The perfect manner in which the whole journey to the moon was managed is a testimony to the scientific competence of the whole operation. The lander was only about two kilometres away from the moon when it lost contact with the earth station. The complications of soft landing were expected, particularly after the experience of a similar experiment by Israel. The journey by itself and the fact that the orbiter will be available for one year should bring benefits to space science. As the PM stressed, what has been accomplished is not small. "Aim big in life and divide it into small parts or goals. Go for achieving these small goals and assembling it. Forget about what you miss and never let disappointment enter in the way," said the Prime Minister.

If the experiment had succeeded, India would have been the fourth country in the world to have accomplished the feat of soft landing on the moon. But even without that, India remains the fourth biggest space power even with lower financial capacity than many other countries. The total cost of the project was only USD 140 million, less than Hollywood would spend on a film on space. Western press mocked India with a cartoon of an Indian farmer, holding a cow, knocking at the door of an exclusive club of space tycoons, but it was a recognition of the low cost of India’s space exploration.

The moon mission itself had several challenges and involved many first-time milestones to be achieved for India. Some of these had never been attempted before, by any other country across the world. Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft which was the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mk-III), the country’s most powerful launcher till date. It comprised three modules on board, namely the Orbiter, the Lander (Vikram) and the Rover (Pragyan). The Lander was only 5% of the whole project.

The most significant result of the mission was that it reinvigorated the spirit of scientific curiosity in India. As a testament to India’s scientific spirit, an overwhelming majority of Chandrayaan 2’s components were designed and fabricated by citizens and scientists across the length and breadth of India. This included the Pragyan rover’s traction control and motor dynamic systems, which were essential to the mission’s success.

Chandrayaan 2’s launcher weighed as much as 640 mid-size cars. The GSLV Mk-III, which launched the Chandrayaan 2, weighs a staggering 640 tonnes with the complete payload. This is almost as heavy as 640 hatchback cars stacked on top of each other.

Chandrayaan 2 aimed to conduct India’s first ‘soft landing’ on the Moon. The lander aboard Chandrayaan 2- named Vikram utilized the advanced propulsion systems to attempt the nation’s first soft landing on the Moon.

Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter, Vikram lander and Pragyan rover carried 14 scientific payloads, which included the Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopes and X-ray Monitors – which would have understood the Moon’s composition and seismic activities better.

The technical complications of landing on the Moon’s south polar region had deterred many previous space attempts. Chandrayaan 2 was the first to attempt to reach the South polar region of the lunar surface. The sheer experience of attempting such a feat was worth the effort, even though the soft landing did not materialise. No doubt the valuable experience will be an asset in the future space probes. The continuity in space development was underlined by the presence of the previous Chairmen of ISRO and other distinguished scientists at the crucial time with the Prime Minister.

It is worth recollecting at this juncture some of the achievements of ISRO, which have been globally recognised. Back in 2009, NASA confirmed that it was India's Moon Impact Probe (MIP) on board country's unmanned lunar craft which detected evidence of water on the moon. India has its own space observatory, thanks to ISRO. AstroSat, India's first dedicated space observatory may be 10 times smaller than Hubble Telescope but is the first space telescope launched by a developing country. Although India is not well-known for manufacturing anosatellites,ISROonce revealed that ISRO’s first satellite many years ago was a nano one, weighing just 40 kg. One of the most important achievements of ISRO was the discovery of three species of bacteria in the upper stratosphere at an altitude of between 20–40 km. The bacteria, highly resistant to ultra-violet radiation, are not found elsewhere on Earth. In July 2015, ISRO launched 5 British satellites. Britain not only rented premium space from ISRO but also hired a rocket for the first time.

The moon is not merely a celestial body for India. It is interwoven in religion, mythology, classic literature, music, romance and the fortunes of mankind. It is a lunar deity and one of the nine planets, widely worshipped in India. All major Indian festivals are observed on full moon days. Vedic astrology attaches significant importance to the moon. The waxing and waning of the moon are believed to determine the fortunes of humans. The full moon emanates the most vibrant and luminescent energies of the lunar cycle whenever the earth is between the moon and sun. In fact, because of its proximity of the moon with the earth, it has a deep effect on the earth. Even the love life of humans and animals are influenced by the moon. The English word, lunatic, has been derived from the moon and there is a saying “Oh it is a full moon. And that is when all the crazy people come out.”

The fascination of mankind for the moon makes it all the more important for space scientists to study the moon. Many of the legends about the moon may turn out to be false when man studies the moon in great depth. When Yuri Gagarin circumnavigated the earth, one of Kerala’s greatest poets, Ayyappa Paniker, speculated on the impact of his journey on poetic imagination. He wrote:

Receive my greetings,
receive my congratulations,
but keep away from my arrow range,
my free thoughts surge forward,
breaking all fetters,
So get off my tracks!

The love affair of man with the moon will not end with fifteen minutes of terror or a single technological failure. Mankind and ISRO will continue to reach out to the moon and other celestial bodies to open new frontiers of knowledge for mankind.