Bangalore: India’s expedition to the moon is off to a good start, even before the homegrown Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, rocket that will launch the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft leaves terra firma on 22 October, with the country’s space agency expecting to complete the main objectives of the mission a year ahead of schedule, freeing up the spacecraft for additional work.
Jump-start: The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft displayed for media at the Isro satellite centre in Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
The new time frame is on account of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro’s, partnership with the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
The partnership allows Isro to use three deep space complexes — in California, Spain, and Australia — to receive scientific data round the clock from its spacecraft at no cost. Nasa typically charges $25,000 (Rs12.2 lakh) an hour for receiving data from missions that do not carry its instruments. Chandrayaan-1 carries 11 instruments, including two from Nasa.
The deep space network of Isro on the outskirts of Bangalore can receive the data only for 12 hours the spacecraft faces the subcontinent, but with the arrangement with Nasa, it could process the information faster to share it with the scientific community.
The spacecraft can also store onboard data that it collects for more than a day, before it beams it to earth.
“You (the Indian station) will be idle for the 12 hours, when it (the spacecraft) is on the otherside. Now, you can get full 24 hours,” said M. Annadurai, project director of the Chandrayaan-1 mission in a September interview. “(Also), we are getting (it) free of cost.”
India’s scientists had originally budgeted two years for the Chandrayaan-1 mission.
“Nasa’s role and level of cooperation varies from one mission to another and is negotiated with the other party,” said Michael J. Braukas, a spokesman for Nasa in an email response. “Primarily because the requirements of each mission are different and technical interchange is necessary to insure that Nasa can even receive the data.”
Isro will share the processed scientific data it received from the instruments with space agencies such as Nasa and ESA, which provided one of the instruments, besides making it public for the scientific community within a year of completing the mission.
ESA supported the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the Infra Red Spectrometer-2 or SIR-2 for Chandrayaan-1.
Analysts say such cooperation with foreign agencies is necessary for reducing costs and bring down the time of scientific missions to space. “There is no harm in collaboration. If tomorrow there are colonies on the moon, then you require international grouping to take such big missions in hand so its better that the state is engaging other powers in this,” said Ajey Lele, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
The Chandrayaan-1 mission costs Rs386 crore, which includes the Rs100 crore Isro spent in setting up the 32-metre antenna for the deep-space network.
The Indian mission costs nearly a third of the Chinese Chang’e-1 lunar mission, which cost $187 million, and a sixth of the $480 million it cost Japan for its Selene moon mission last year.
“In the China spacecraft, the number of instruments is half of (what we are carrying),” said Annadurai.
Ulaganathan Sankar, a professor at the Madras School of Economics, who has done a cost benefit analysis in a study of India’s space programme, says the lower costs arise mainly due to the low cost technical manpower and higher degree of homegrown systems and components in space activities. “Availability of technical man power (here is) about one-eight of the cost in the US, even if we assume the US labour is twice as productive as the Indian labour.”
Sankar said Isro builds PSLV rocket and remote sensing satellites at a cost that is at least 30% lower than those of rockets and satellites built by Nasa and ESA.