As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government reaches the 100-day mark of its second-term in office, the public discourse remains dominated by Kashmir and a slowdown in the economy. However, as a student at MIT, a university mostly known for science and engineering, I feel a palpable excitement in the scientific community on this campus for a very different national feat right now, the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s lunar touchdown, which will coincide with the 100-day mark.
On 7 September, when the Vikram Lander ejects the Pragyan Rover to roll out and analyse the lunar terrain, India expects to become the world’s first country to land on the moon’s highly uneven south pole. Prof. Goverdhan Mehta of the Space Commission calls it as “India’s Sputnik moment", for it represents a big leap forward for Indian science. Such missions require decades of scientific effort, government planning, and an adequate allocation of resources.
Apart from the ability to orbit a solar-system object, the Chandrayaan 2 project shall demonstrate a capability to land on the surface and carry out scientifically valuable exploratory missions around landing points through robotic rovers. On board the craft, there are eight scientific payloads. Experimental data from these would make precise measurements of the chemical and mineral composition of the moon, map the topography of the lunar surface to intensify a search for the presence of hydroxyl and water molecules. In general, exploring the south pole area will significantly improve our understanding of the moon, for the region contains an unperturbed historical record of the inner solar system environment.
India had conducted an exhaustive study over 1999 to 2003 to chart out its future space missions. The study involved the country’s noted space experts and policymakers and led to the decision of India’s first moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, a crewless deep-space mission launched in 2008 that didn’t involve a landing. The decision was influenced by two specific factors: the satellite-building and launch vehicle capabilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the interest of India’s scientific community, as well as an opportunity to qualitatively upgrade our technological capabilities in areas such as control, guidance and navigation, deep-space communications, and other fields. Chandrayaan-1 satisfactorily fulfilled its mission objectives. It discovered the possible existence of water in the exosphere and on the surface as well sub-surface of the moon, mapped the mineralogical and chemical properties of the lunar regolith, atmosphere and ionosphere, and studied aspects of solar radiation interaction with the moon.
In recent decades, India’s launch vehicle programme has matured, with ISRO a cost-effective launcher of domestic and foreign satellites. As of 2018, India had launched 237 satellites for 28 different countries. Using these technologies, India has also built a series of sophisticated satellites for applications such as remote sensing, communication, broadcasting and navigation, as also for scientific missions. Spurred by this, the success of the Chandrayaan-1 mission, and 2013 launch of India’s first interplanetary mission to Mars, Isro got the government’s nod to go for a more sophisticated mission, Chandrayaan 2, involving far higher level of technology, more detailed scientific measurements and a substantial increase in the complexity of the mission’s overall scope.
With missions like Chandrayaan 2, India hopes to play its rightful role in such future ventures, which could be mostly international and for which the country could develop confidence through a set of national initiatives.
The use of the moon as a take-off point to reach other locations in the solar system is also recognized as an attractive strategy. Here too, the preliminary experience gained from Chandrayaan 2 could be very valuable from technical and scientific points of view. “Near-earth orbital missions, geosynchronous missions, near-Earth human spaceflight missions, robotic lunar and planetary exploration involving many solar system objects will be well within India’s reach in the next decade. In my view, this sets the perspective for Chandrayaan 2," says K. Kasturirangan, former chairperson, Isro.
The mission is a major capability boost for India in its plans to conceive even more complex undertakings to nearby and distant planets and other bodies of the solar system, like the crewed mission, Gaganyaan, scheduled for 2022 to mark India’s 75th year of independence. However, as we celebrate our Sputnik moment, let us also remind ourselves that the allocation of resources to research and development in India is the lowest among BRICS nations. In 2014-15, India spent only about 0.69% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, while Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa spent 1.24%, 1.19%, 2.05%, and 0.75%, respectively. Also, the level of spending on R&D as a fraction of GDP has remained stagnant for the past two decades. I hope that the success of the Chandrayaan 2 mission would draw the attention of our policymakers to increase the country’s level of support to science.
Shekhar Chandra is a PhD student in public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology