For Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), it was a great leap forward when it launched the 3,840-kg Chandrayaan-2 successfully on Monday. A successful mission would make India the fourth country in the world to do so after the US, erstwhile USSR, and China. The fact that the whole mission cost less than ₹1,000 crore, yet again proves ISRO’s ability to undertake such critical missions on shoestring budgets. Fifty years after humans landed on the moon, we still know little about earth’s only natural satellite — its evolution, topography, surface chemical composition, among other things. Successful moon missions can help India expand its prowess in a wide range of areas, including materials science, robotics, and artificial intelligence. It is for the state to take the lead in investing in space research for the long-term spin-offs it will generate. India’s R&D spend, at 0.7 per cent of GDP, is abysmal; private investment unsurprisingly makes up less than half this sum, given the time taken for such returns to materialise.
Considering that India launched its first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, 11 years ago, the sequel shouldn’t have taken this long in coming. The initial delay was on account of Russians backing out from helping ISRO develop the ‘lander’ and ‘rover’, key components of Chandrayaan-2, which unlike its first lunar mission is designed to soft land on the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-2 has an orbiter, which is designed to go around the moon for a year, a lander called Vikram which would land on the unexplored lunar south pole and a tiny rover named Pragyan that would go around a bit to explore the lunar terrain. The Russians’ inability to help ISRO on this important mission, in fact, was a boon in disguise. It prompted Indian space scientists to develop the lander and rover by themselves.
The July 22 launch was the easy part. September 7 would be crucial; on that day, the Vikram lander would leave the orbiter behind and descend on the lunar surface. The landing site, near the lunar south pole region, is so chosen because it is largely unexplored and is believed to have sources of water. Sensors aboard Chandaryaan-1 first helped pick up signatures of water molecules on the lunar surface. But to what extent such molecules are distributed remains a mystery. The soft landing on the treacherous lunar terrain would test our scientists’ understanding of the lunar atmosphere. The Chinese may have safely soft landed twice in the recent years. Israel lost its lunar lander Beresheet early this year. Once landed, Vikram would release Pragyan. The six-wheeled robotic vehicle can travel up to 500 metres. Both Vikram and Pragyan are expected to remain functional for 14 days. A successful lunar mission is an accomplishment the nation can be proud of and will lift India’s strategic standing in the global arena. But paradoxically, in day-to-day life our S&T applications have been less than impressive.