Let’s Assemble the Parts
On July 22, 2019, a team lead by Project Director M Vanitha successfully launched the country’s second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2 from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Planning for Chandrayaan-2 began way back in 2007 with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) signing an agreement for the agencies to work together. Roscosmos later withdrew from the agreement after sighting technical issues and India decided to conduct the lunar mission independently. The reins of this project were handed over to M Vanitha, who along with Mission Director Ritu Karidhal took the contribution of women in Indian space research to new heights.
The objectives of the mission are:
- Showcase the ability to land on the lunar surface.
- Operate a robotic rover on the surface of the moon.
- Study the lunar topography and search for signatures of water ice.
Chandrayaan-2 makes use of a new and improved rocket. The launch displayed the performance of indigenously built Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – 3 (GSLV Mklll) which took the spacecraft into orbit. Nicknamed as ‘fat boy’ by ISRO officials, it carried 3.8 tonnes of payload into space.
A Launch to Remember
- Chandrayaan-2 will land near the south pole of the moon, which is an unexplored territory. With this, India plans to become the first country ever to land a spacecraft near moon’s south pole. A robotic rover will examine this territory for signs of water.
- This mission will also make India the fourth country after USA, Russia and China to land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon, thus establishing itself as a leader in space research.
- It took Marvel around Rs. 2400 crore to produce one Avengers movie. And ISRO spent Rs. 978 crores (Rs. 603 crores for the rover, lander, orbiter and support network and Rs.375 crores for GSLV Mklll) to launch Chandrayaan-2 into outer space. This in itself is a truly remarkable feat.
Bumpy Ride in Space
There is a catch to being cost-effective, let’s try to examine the cost of cutting down on expenses. Most of the projects in India are of very short duration compared to the ones carried out by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). What this essentially means is that we are collecting fewer data and doing less space research compared to our counterparts in other countries. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope mission cost the USA an estimated $10 billion (Rs. 68,000 crores), but it has led to more than 1.3 million observations with noted contributions such as determining the age of the universe, pinning down the rate of expansion of the universe, discovery of Nix and Hydra, the two moons of Pluto. On the other side Chandrayaan-1, which led to the discovery of water on the surface of the moon, was a mission which was supposed to last two years, but communication with the probe was lost after 10 months.
The reason India is sticking to a low budget isn’t a matter of choice but a necessity. NASA and ESA do not depend on government spending alone, they help in the growth of private space industrial sector as well. In India, participation by private players in space-related activities is absent. Poor investor sentiment and lack of an ecosystem to nurture the growth of start-ups handicap the growth of Indian space research. Clear policy measures that can facilitate the flow of investments, estimate the cost of transactions and improve predictability are indeed needed.
The Space Activities Bill certainly seems like a way forward. The bill has sought to clarify many questions like grounds for refusing a licence to private players, defining offences to address transgressions in space, improving private participation in space research. Antrix and NewSpace India Ltd. are two state-driven enterprises which have been set up to ensure the flow of technology from the state-sponsored space program to the private sector. As India gears up to establish its dominance in space missions, with the launch of Chandrayaan-2 and human spaceflight planned for 2022 (Gaganyaan), it faces a steep uphill climb, both in technical and regulatory terms.
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