With it, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) also lost the opportunity to coincide the launch of Chandrayaan-2 with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the historic Apollo 11 mission of NASA—the first time humans landed on the lunar surface.
“Chandrayaan-2 is one of the most challenging missions that Isro has taken up so far. So, it was important that the agency goes ahead with it, only after all checks are cleared. It is commendable, that they detected the glitch moments before the launch and halted the countdown," said Ajay Lele, senior fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
The total cost of the mission was pegged at ₹978 crore, including ₹603 crore for the space segment and ₹375 crore for launch costs.
It is not the first time that a mission has been aborted hours before the launch. In August 2013, Isro had called off the launch of GSLV-D5 before take off, after it detected a fuel leak. The vehicle was taken back from the take-off site and the launch was postponed to January 2014.
Earlier on Monday, the national space agency had completed the filling of fuel, including liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, into the cryogenic stage of GSLV Mk III- M1—the agency’s most powerful three-stage rocket, indicating the process was running normally till the last hour.
At 2.37am, however, Isro tweeted that a technical snag had been observed in the launch vehicle system 56 minutes before the scheduled launch at 2.51am. “As a measure of abundant precaution, Chandrayaan-2’s launch has been called off for today. Revised launch date will be announced later," it tweeted.
While it is pragmatic for space agencies to abort missions in view of technical glitches, it may push back the next launch date by a few weeks. It is, however, not yet clear how much time Isro will need to fix the error. If the rocket has a significant glitch, it may have to be shifted from the launch pad at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh to the laboratory facility, which could delay the mission by at least a month.
The geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) Mk-III, Isro’s most powerful rocket, which was designed to carry Chandrayaan-2, has also been selected to undertake the country’s first manned mission, Gaganyaan, in 2024. The soft landing near the Moon’s southern pole was originally expected to happen on 7 September.
Another challenge for Isro will be to secure a feasible launch window. The Moon’s distance from the Earth on an average is 384,400km. Another window could open after roughly 15 days, keeping in consideration the orbital raising manoeuvres required to be done to push the module towards the lunar orbit.
The module was expected to travel in the Earth’s orbit for 17 days, before entering the Earth-Moon transfer orbit. The orbital mathematics would now have to be revised accordingly.
Another crucial aspect is that Isro is attempting a landing on the Moon at a time the lunar day begins. “If the 6 September landing is missed, then it is quite possible that the agency may want to land when the next lunar day begins, which would be after 28 days," said Nirupam Roy, assistant professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
As per the original plan, Isro was to attempt a soft landing near the moon’s southern pole on 6 September. This would be followed by both the lander Vikram and rover Pragyaan mapping the lunar surface for 14 earth days.
The integrated Chandryaan-2 module consists of an orbiter to revolve around the moon for a period of one year, lander Vikram and rover Pragyan. The larger aim of the mission is to double down on the experiments conducted by the first lunar mission launched in October 2008 and procure more data on the extent and distribution of water on the moon.
Since the moon is the closest cosmic body to the earth, it also offers opportunities to demonstrate technologies which are required for deep space missions.