To Moon and Mars, again

And that explains why the Indian space agency, Isro, is creating artificial craters. Near the fort town of Chitradurga, 400 km from Bengaluru, Isro has created a dozen of them—10 metres in diametre, 3 metres in depth—to simulate the lunar terrain. It has begun testing equipment, specifically the Lander and associated electronics and avionics, for the second Moon mission. Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to launch in late 2017 or early 2018.

In 2008, when Isro sent a spacecraft to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1, it was the first time India was sending a satellite beyond the geostationary orbit—from the 36,000 km high orbit that Indian rockets were routinely injecting satellites into, it went much farther, to 3.6 lakh km. But the spacecraft was so designed that it could fit the existing rocket’s, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s (PSLV), carrying capacity. The XL version of the rocket used had been in use earlier and needed just a tweak. In summary, it was the set of payloads, the 11 instruments on the satellite, that set the mission truly apart.

The manned Apollo missions of Nasa in 1969 and later left behind two notable legacies: that the Moon is a dry, arid place, and that, as humans, we have found all that there is to find on the Moon. Which is why after a flurry of missions in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Nasa turned away from the Moon and directed its resources to Mars and others planets and asteroids.

Various Missions

“Several missions had gone before us, but Chandrayaan-1 gets the credit for discovering water [molecules] on the Moon for the first time and the processes that are responsible for its formation. even though the instruments onboard were from Nasa,” says AS Kiran Kumar, chairman of Isro.

Broadly speaking, Chandrayaan-1 was an exploration mission; a science mission so to say. In comparison, Chandrayaan-2 is a technology mission, one where Isro is building and testing a host of new technologies starting with the soft landing of a spacecraft on the Moon. Or any planetary surface for that matter. (It did, however, crash-land its probe the first time and the site on the Moon has since been named as Jawahar Sthal.)

This time around, Isro is sending an Orbiter, a Lander and a Rover to the Moon. “Unlike the previous crash-landing, we have a controlled descent this time which means much manoeuvring of our normal liquid engines so that you can compensate for the gravitational pull and have a safe touchdown,” says Kiran Kumar. It has built a set of imaging and sensing technologies which would ensure that the Lander identifies a ‘safe’ area to land and doesn’t topple over. “We are currently experimenting this [in Chitradurga]” he says. “Besides these, there are several Rover-to-Lander and Lander-to-Earth communication technologies that we have built for the first time.”

In what could be called an incredible happenstance, TeamIndus, the only Indian participant in Google’s $30 million Lunar XPRIZE, will probably be ahead of Chandrayaan-2 in landing its spacecraft and Rover on the moon. This week it confirmed buying a commercial launch slot for late 2017 on one of the PSLV-XL rockets and it is likely to be the only satellite on that launch. For testing, says Rahul Narayan, co-founder of TeamIndus, “We plan to utilise services of an established ‘lunar terrain simulation’ facility to ensure we truly understand the behaviour and dynamics of operating on the lunar surface.”

Not done with the Moon yet

Only three other countries have managed a soft launch on the Moon—the United States and Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, and China in 2013.

While TeamIndus’ is a private endeavour, a true moonshot as it were, and its Rover is expected to travel a short 500 metres to take images and send them back to the earth, Chandrayaan-2 Rover has bigger tasks cut out. The former’s lunar surface operation is expected to last no more than 320 hours whereas the planned life of Isro’s Rover is one lunar day or 14 earth days or 336 hours. (In other words, the planned maximum life of TeamIndus rover is 320 hours whereas the planned minimum life of Isro’s rover is 336 hours.) Isro wouldn’t disclose much except that “on the surface of the moon, more systematic observations are planned.”

The manned Apollo missions of Nasa in 1969 and later left behind two notable legacies: that the Moon is a dry, arid place, and that, as humans, we have found all that there is to find on the Moon. Which is why after a flurry of missions in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Nasa turned away from the Moon and directed its resources to Mars and others planets and asteroids.

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