Bangalore: Forty years after the US landed a man on the moon, India’s first steps in its journey to the Earth’s satellite with its maiden mission Chandrayaan-1 will see an early end, following repeated snags in the lunar probe.
Chandrayaan, launched on 22 October, will be dumped outside the moon orbit or crashed on its surface later this year, ahead of its intended two-year mission of orbiting the moon, after the star sensors—that guide the spacecraft to the moon’s surface—failed in April.
“The next set of operations will begin in two months...after that we need another two-three months—so in about four-five months we should be able to complete operations,” said Madhavan Nair, chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), at a press conference here on Friday. “...after all operations are over, we’ll allow it to decay.”
Shortlived glory: India’s maiden mission to the moon will see an early end, much before its intended two-year lifespan, following repeated snags in the lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1. Indian Space Research Organization / AP
Trouble began in January, when Isro could not switch on two of the 11 instruments on board due to the faulty design of its heat protection system. The spacecraft was around 3 degrees hotter than the intended 40 degrees Celsius, making it hard to operate its power consuming instruments—high energy X-ray spectrometer and the subkiloelectron volt atom reflecting analyser—in lunar summer.
On 26 April, two star sensors developed snags that made Isro raise the craft to a higher orbit of 200km from the earlier 100km over the moon’s surface. Isro claimed on 20 May that the change was to study the gravitational field of the moon. This would help in planning for a future landings, M. Annadurai, programme director of Chandrayaan-1 had said then.
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“It (Chandrayaan) is a partial success (for Isro),” said Ajey Lele, a research fellow on space studies at Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Chandrayaan is not the first lunar probe to face such a setback. In May 1994, Clementine, the first lunar satellite of the US in two decades, failed in three months of its launch and drifted out of the moon orbit. “Very few moon missions have been successful,” said M. Krishnaswamy, project director of the lunar mission.
Now, the lunar craft is being guided by the gyroscope, a back-up instrument, but it is burning more fuel as it needs to be oriented towards its surface for the cameras to snap images of the moon.
“Once the mission objectives are completed, then we don’t have to continue the spacecraft as it will cost lot money to maintain it,” said Nair. “95% of the objectives have been met. I would say it’s 100% over only once all the mapping and imaging that we wanted to do is completed”.
The unmanned spacecraft has so far mapped the moon’s surface, beamed thousands of images for space scientists to create a three-dimensional atlas and analyse its terrain and atmosphere. The US’ lunar reconnaissance orbiter, launched in June, follows a similar path, including identifying regions in the lunar polar regions to return a man on the moon.
This is the second major setback for Isro this year. In January, W2M, a communications satellite it built for Europe’s Eutelsat, failed in orbit within a month of launch, after a snag in the electric-power subsystem of the satellite. Isro’s commercial arm Antrix Corp. Ltd had won its first satellite building contract from Eutelsat for $33 million (Rs161 crore today ).
Isro has planned its second lunar mission with the Russian space agency to land a rover on the moon by 2013. The rover is expected to collect samples of moon soil and rocks, conduct on-site chemical analyses, and eventually transmit the data to earth. “The lessons learnt (for Chandrayaan-2) are that we need to harden the devices more for radiation conditions and improve the thermal management,” said Nair.
By 2016, Isro plans to launch an astronaut into space. The government is yet to approve its first human spaceflight, expected to cost Rs10,000 crore, but it has sanctioned Rs325 crore for preliminary work. After that, Isro will plan a manned mission to the moon around 2020—about the same time the US and China plan their missions.