Opinion | An Indian glow on the dark side of the moon

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission is a scientific endeavour to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and not just another attempt to join the lunar ‘space race’ for national glory

India’s avowed aim to pursue space research for the expansion of human knowledge got a mega lift as its second lunar mission got underway. The Chandrayaan-2 successfully blasted off from the launch site at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh at 14:43 hours on Monday, marking the end of a week-long phase of anxiety over a technical glitch that had resulted in its previous launch being aborted at the last minute on 15 July. Holding the moon-bound spacecraft back was a call well taken, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) deserves a pat on its back for its swift corrective measures. This is a unique moon expedition in several ways and, if successful, would catapult India into a league of nations that have soft-landed a spacecraft on the earth’s only natural satellite. Only China, the former Soviet Union and the US have achieved this feat so far. Israel reportedly botched up its moon mission earlier this year, with its lunar lander feared to have crash-landed there. Unlike other exploratory efforts, India’s objective is to reach a point near the south pole—on the so-called “dark side" of the moon. Bereft of sunlight and thus also solar power, studying this part is harder, but also potentially more rewarding. Coupled with the mission’s impressively low cost (a total outlay of $142 million), this explains why Chandrayaan-2 has the world’s attention.

Isro’s first lunar flight was in 2008, when Chandrayaan-1 was sent off to orbit the moon, and signs of lunar water and ice were relayed back to earth. Its successor is now expected to soft-land a lander on 7 September, which will roll out a six-wheeled rover to conduct experiments on the moon. In particular, Isro plans to study the extent of water distribution on the surface and possibly establish how it got there in the absence of an atmosphere. If large quantities of water are discovered, then it could help sustain a lunar base manned by humans at some point in the future. Significantly, the rover and other equipment will also look for signs of hydroxyl, a molecule that contains hydrogen and oxygen, elements that are critical to life as we know it. The mission has much else to do as well. It aims to get an accurate map of the satellite’s topography, study various minerals and elements up there, and examine its exosphere. Of special interest are craters on the dark side. Since these are thought to have been created by the impact of objects slamming into the moon, they could hold valuable material—a kind of fossil record—that might throw light on what was flying about in the early solar system. The moon might even have something to reveal of the sun.

All of this makes it clear that Isro has burned more midnight oil than public money in its quest for a greater understanding of the shiny orb that has waxed and waned in our night sky from time immemorial. In many ways, our moon mission exemplifies the values that our scientific establishment has long held dear: Of thrift and thought. Both these are mutually reinforcing, arguably, so long as it involves the use of our best resources in the interests of the world at large. The more we know, the better off we’ll be as inhabitants of this planet. It takes brains rather than billions. Plus genuine passion for the truth out there.