ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3: Can we regain our scientific temper with its launch?
It was Vikram Sarabhai’s vision in the 1950s to make India a world leader in space programmes.
To make that dream come true, India needed its own space organization – which was not a priority for the then government.
It was fairly understandable, because at that time there were serious problems like famine, poverty and enemies at the border – international community was sceptical of our success. Despite all its odds, Vikram Sarabhai continued to set up a team of scientists and a rocket launching station in South Kerala.
From a small town of Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram – India launched its first sounding rocket in 1963, and that initiated our space exploration journey.
Cut to 2008, ISRO, our very own space agency launches Chandrayaan-1. The world was surprised to see a nation that once transported rocket parts on cycle, now aiming for the Moon.
After this success, a mission to Mars was planned and followed by Chandrayaan-2 later. Then a world record was set to launch most satellites in a rocket – which remained unbroken for 4 years. Today, from merely the year 2018-2022, ISRO has launched 177 foreign satellites from 19 nations in 5 years, and has become a trusted partner.
On 14 July, 2023, ISRO successfully launched the Chandrayaan-3 rocket LVM3-M4 to the Moon. Lakhs saw the event live on Television, YouTube etc.
While, on one hand, ISRO is setting new milestones, on the other hand, India’s scientific reputation is declining day by day – with less funding, there are less research papers. ISRO is working upon cryogenic engine technology, despite sanctions, but DRDO is unable to provide drones, anti-aircraft missile or fighter jet engines. And so we are buying these technologies for huge sums of money while being dependant on other countries.
Scientific temper is eroding from schools as well – can ISRO’s stellar success with Chandrayaan-3 guide us towards scientific reasoning and curiosity? Can we regain our scientific temper?
With the increase in scientific thinking, we not only decrease our dependency on others, but also save tons of money at the same time. Scientists abroad have lost their hair wondering how ISRO is able to make such economically viable space missions. Where NASA’s mission to Mars cost $671 million USD, India’s Mangalyaan cost only $74 million USD.
Chandrayaan-3 will land a rover on Moon and it costs 650 crore rupees which is close to the budget of the movie, Adipurush. If ISRO will keep succeeding at such low cost, scientists from other countries will have no option but to lose their hair out of stress.
The mission of Chandrayaan-3 is designed to have a soft-landing on lunar surface. The journey started off with the Chandrayaan-1. Chandrayaan-1 was launched in 2008 and its mission was to survey the lunar surface for minerals and chemicals for 2 years – study chemical composition and create 3D topography of near and far side of the Moon.
Because of technical issues, the mission was inactive for 2 years, but then in the next year, it worked and completed 95% of its objectives. During the mission, Chandrayaan-1 deliberately crashed an impactor probe on the south pole of the Moon. In the crash, impactor probe collected data and discovered water in ice form on the lunar surface.
The next mission was Chandrayaan-2 whose goal was soft landing on the Moon and study the results of Chandrayaan-1 on the surface. But soft landing on Moon is not an easy task – launch of Chandrayaan-2 in 2019 was a success, but the landing disappointed the scientists.
Almost 1.5-month journey after the launch, when Vikram lander was trying to have a soft landing towards Lunar south, it could not reduce its initial speed of 6000km/hr, and as a result, deviated from the set trajectory. Due to a software glitch, contact with ISRO was also lost before touchdown and the lander crashed. At that time, a video of ISRO chief K. Sivan being consoled by PM Modi went viral as the lander crashed.
But ISRO did not give up after that failure. Without losing any time, a committee was set up to detect the cause of failure, and some changes are now made in Chandrayaan-3, so that the launch and landing are both successful. Current ISRO chairman, S. Somanath said that Chandrayaan-2 adopted success based design approach, while Chandrayaan-3 has failure based design. Anything that may be a cause of failure has been double checked and corrected.
Chandrayaan-3 was successfully launched on 14 July after many upgrades and safety features installed. Like its predecessor, Chandrayaan-3 is also launched on ISRO’s most powerful rocket – GSLV Mark 3 or LVM3.
Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft has 3 missions –
- Lander Module – It aims for soft landing and deployment of rover.
- Rover – The rover will study lunar surface, collect samples and send back to earth
- Propulsion Module – it will carry the lander and rover configuration until the spacecraft is in a 100 km lunar orbit. Propulsion module will act like a relay satellite, because landing is on the south side of the Moon from where a direct communication is not possible.
Vikram lander of Chandrayaan-3 will touchdown in August and Pragyan rover will be deployed, and India will again make a mark as the first country to soft land on the south side of the Moon, if all goes well. Remember, India is also the first nation to successfully reach Mars in the first attempt.
Aiming for Moon’s South Pole
But the question is, what is the importance of landing on the south pole region? Americans reached the Moon 50 years ago, then why are scientists interested today in studying the south side of the Moon? Why are they eagerly waiting information by Chandrayaan-3?
Because, the lunar south is permanently in the shadows – Sun’s rays don’t reach there, and that is why there may be lunar ice, and research suggests molecules of water. Moreover, there are small as well as large 13 km deep craters here – studying these will help to know the early stages of solar system. America, too, is keenly observing Chandrayaan-3 as their Artemis crewed mission will land on the lunar south too.
So, they are waiting for data as well as possible challenges faced while landing of Chandrayaan-3.
The cost of Artemis project is $93 billion USD, while of Artemis-1 alone, whose job is to revolve around the moon, is $4 billion USD. Our Chandrayaan-3 will revolve as well as land in just $80 million USD – which is nothing in comparison to the costs of American project.
Lunar South Pole – Mission Impossible?
Have other countries tried before if studying lunar south is so important? Along with India, Israel too have attempted to land there, but failed. So it’s very difficult to succeed with the technology available.
All landings, thus, so far, were on equatorial region near side – as topography here is relatively smooth, sunlight in abundance and temperature is desirable for instruments. On the contrary, the south side of the Moon is completely in the dark and temperature reaches -230 degree Celsius with the existence of risky deep craters. Working of an instrument here becomes too difficult. Thus, Vikram lander and Pragyan rover will work for only 1 lunar day or 14 earth days – it is not designed to work in the lunar night.
India’s Failing scientific temperament
We are all proud of ISRO’s scientific achievements – it is a moment of great pride for us. But today, there are two Indias when it comes to the sciences. On one hand, ISRO’s achievements and on the other hand, India’s failing scientific temperament and our gravitation towards superstitions. While ISRO is launching satellites of other nations and making huge sums of money and respect, Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is losing both.
CAG in a report pulled up DRDO for the delay in completion of projects of national security and overrunning costs. This delay is not in terms of months, but years. For example – Anti tank guided missile HELINA was supposed to be completed in 2010, but its first successful test was done in 2022, after a delay of 12 years. Second example of a project given by defence ministry in 2011 – design and development of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) vehicles.
The initial completion date was set around 2016, but deferred to 2020 and then three years later to August 2023. CAG told in their report that because of lack of these drones, our aerial surveillance is weak. The project cost was also increased.
As a result of this failure by DRDO, India, today, may acquire 31 US drones from America for USD 3 billion – the negotiations are still on. In a nutshell, 119 of 175 projects are delayed and extensions as much as 5 times sought for some projects. Ajay Bhatt, Minister of State for Defence, told in the Parliament that 23 out of 55 mission mode projects are delayed.
The minister also said that the cost of 12 out of 55 projects had escalated. The total sanctioned cost of 55 project was Rs75,000 crores – so now imagine how much cost overrun will be if they are delayed, and the disadvantage our forces have to face! There is also a setback in semiconductor industry as Foxconn withdrew from $19.5 billion chip plan deal with Vedanta in India.
From smartphone to satellite, semiconductors are used everywhere. But we are dependent on others for this essential electronic component – we import 90% of our semiconductor requirements. However, in 1987, India was just two years behind the latest chip manufacturing technology – today, we are 12 generations behind, for a plethora of reasons.
ISRO understood the importance of semiconductors and revived it for their chip requirement. Had the government revived the plant in the right time, we won’t be depending on others for semiconductors.
We are slipped to the bottom because of our own mistakes – DRDO, HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) and semiconductors – one can see that we lack in defence and chip manufacturing sector, critical technology in the country. Same is the case with scientific temperament and research and development.
GDP & Scientific temper
For the last 20 years, the objective or target was to use 2% of GDP for R&D, but it is getting reduced instead. As per the department of science and technology, R&D allotment has fallen from 0.76% in 2011 to 0.64% in 2020. In budget 2023, 0.36% was allotted to the ministry of science and technology, whereas China, that is always in the mood for snatching land, allotted 2.40% towards scientific development.
UNESCO science report 2021 shows that China filed for 16 lakh patents, while we did for nearly 62,000 only. One can understand the scientific progress by the number of journals published – China published 10 lakh in 2022, while India not even 3 lakh.
The government has to understand that without spending money on R&D, without promoting scientific temperament, without encouraging indigenous capabilities – we cannot move forward – not every agency is self-motivated like ISRO. Will we always depend on other countries for defence technology? What about the dream of self-reliance?
We do point out Nehru’s thousands of mistakes, but forget one of his qualities – his trust in science and technology. Nehru was quick to understand the importance of science. He said, “Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”
In 1961, Nehru handed over responsibilities of space research to department of atomic energy, whose secretary was Homi Bhabha. Homi Bhabha set up Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) the next year under the chairmanship of Vikram Sarabhai. INCOSPAR became ISRO in a few years, and in a few months from now Chandrayaan-3 Vikram lander will touch lunar surface.
We hope that this landing fills us all with pride and make us fans of science, not of superstitions.
Images from different sources
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