To moon and beyond: Scaling new frontiers

To accomplish the voyage, it would take 54 days to land on the Moon through meticulously planned orbital phases.

Over the five decades since Neil Armstrong stepped on the Sea of Tranquility, scientific interest in the moon waxed and waned — from a dark period at the end of 20th century to the surge in explorations now. But as evident from Chandrayaan-2’s successful launch on Monday, the moon may have lost its shine for poets, but for scientists it continues to entice and challenge. Particularly for Indian space scientists, set to add their bit to the quest to solve the mysteries of the birth and expansion of the solar system, and of course the earth’s natural satellite. That’s not all.

Chandrayaan-1, India’s first shot at the moon, confirmed the presence of surface ice, which is extremely significant as one of the motivations for the recent resurgence of interest in the moon has been the setting up of a lunar base for interplanetary travel.

Chandrayaan-2, at the end of its 50-day voyage through 384,000-odd km, will not only look for water and ice in the soil, but also below the lunar surface, and in the tenuous lunar exosphere.

With entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos getting into the game of space exploration, more data on water would not only help continue not-for-profit efforts like setting up the international lunar station, with telescopes to peer deep into the heavens, but a stopover post as well for homo sapiens’ journey to Mars and beyond, or even tourism junkets for billionaires! And such a lunar station could also prove an ideal alternative to the International Space Station, now nearing the end of its operational life, with Isro as a partner with other top space agencies.

The million-dollar question for Indian space scientists, however, will be whether they succeed in breaking into the super-elite league, now limited to the United States, Russia and China, through a soft touchdown of “Vikram” (lander) and “Pragyan” (rover) on the moon’s soil.

A candid admission about Chandrayaan-2 being the most complex and challenging mission attempted by Isro, and about those “15 terrifying minutes” by chairman K. Sivan, mirrors the difficult tasks involved in the descent of the lander “Vikram” and rover “Pragyan” from Chandrayaan-2 to the touchdown spot close to the moon’s south pole. A successful landing will not only spawn opportunities for partnering advanced global programmes in exploration of space, but also in keeping Isro’s cash registers ringing through commercial orders for manufacture and launch of satellites of different categories and weights.

Though Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of the country’s space programme, did not envisage a mission to the moon, the moonwalk will signal the fruition of his dreams: linking technology with development, as mirrored in his paper “Space Activity For Developing Countries”, published in the 1966 science and technology series of the American Aeronautical Society of California, where he talked about the potential of space exploration to stimulate growth in electronics, chemicals, cybernetics and materials engineering. In effect, multiple benefits for the common man. And India Inc.

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