Earthbound: India's moon lander launch cancelled for now

A nation waits for an explanation and a new date to send Chandrayaan-2 to the lunar south pole

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    The launch of India's latest space mission was aborted with less than an hour to go due to a technical problem, and no new launch date was given for the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will explore the lunar South Pole [Manish Swarup/AP]
    The launch of India's latest space mission was aborted with less than an hour to go due to a technical problem, and no new launch date was given for the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will explore the lunar South Pole [Manish Swarup/AP]

    With 56 minutes to go, the digital clock just to the right of the video screens inside India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre's press briefing room suddenly stopped. With no live-stream video and only a stopped clock to watch, it was clear something was not quite right with the lunar lander-rover mission.

    Twelve minutes before the scheduled launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India's space agency, tweeted: "A technical snag was observed in launch vehicle system at T-56 minute. As a measure of abundant precaution, #Chandrayaan2 launch has been called off for today. [A] revised launch date will be announced later."

    Monday morning's aborted attempt to launch the Chandrayaan-2 mission would have been the latest nail-biting step in India's space programme. And it would have been nothing less than a giant technological leap for the developing country.

    India's 1.3 billion people must now wait for ISRO to explain just what went wrong, what corrections are being made and announce a new date for their nation's next attempt at making history.

    Chandrayaan-2 is a highly challenging multi-stage moon mission to place into lunar orbit a spacecraft carrying a landing craft and a lunar a rover. What makes this mission so special is that should the orbiter reach the moon, the lunar lander should separate from the main spacecraft and attempt a controlled descent to land on the moon's surface at the south pole.

    What ISRO hopes to attempt is called a "soft landing", a technological feat that only the former Soviet Union, the US and China have so far achieved on the moon. In April an Israeli team saw their Beresheet lander fail to slow down and then slam into the lunar surface, creating another crater and leaving their mission in pieces.

    Chasing the moon

    But before ISRO can worry about the landing, it must first get the Chandrayaan-2 mission off the ground, literally. And that is no easy task. ISRO will need to consider when the craft can be made ready to roll out the launch pad, the weather, and the moon's cyclical trajectory to calculate the next best time for a launch attempt.

    The moon's position will be a significant factor because a miscalculation that puts the moon further away than predicted will necessitate the burning of additional fuel. The more fuel that is needed to make in-flight adjustments, requires yet more fuel just to get the craft off the ground, which in turn means more money and engineering.

    The moon travels around the earth once every 27 days, seven hours, and 43 minutes, but in an elliptical orbit. What that means is the moon does not go around the earth in a simple stationary circle.

    A usable window could be days, weeks, or even months away. But it could be worse, a launch window to reach Mars only opens up once every 26 months.

    India also has more than national pride riding on the success or failure of the Chandrayaan-2 mission. India's ambitions include commercial aspirations.

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    India's space industry is a source of national pride and an estimated $7bn in revenue [Arun Sankar/AFP]

    "It will foster a new age of discovery, increase our understanding of space, promote more global alliances, stimulate the advancement of technology and grow commercial opportunities in India and inspire future generations," ISRO Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.

    In addition to technology and science, India's space programme also wants to prove it can compete in terms of cost. Chandrayaan-2's current economy-class price tag of just $141m covers the rocket, orbiter, lander, rover and the scientific payloads. Again, depending on the next attempt's launch window, that cost may rise.

    Nevertheless, the current price is $9m less than what SpaceX charges for its three-rocket Falcon Heavy launch services that simply take up and then drop off the largest of payloads into Low Earth Orbit. SpaceX has also suffered setbacks, losing a single-rocket Falcon 9 to an explosion during a non-flight test firing in 2016.

    India's objective to join SpaceX in becoming a commercial space services provider is now government policy. India's Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman formally announced in her budget speech on July 5 the creation of new public sector enterprise, New Space India Ltd.

    Sitharaman made it clear that ISRO's ambitions to reach the moon and beyond are integrated into the government's blueprint to create a $5 trillion national economy by 2025.

    "New Space India Limited has been incorporated as a new commercial arm of the Department of Space to tap the benefits of research and development carried out by ISRO. The company will spearhead commercialisation of various space products, including production of launch vehicles, transfer of technologies and marketing of space products," Sitharaman said.

    What is not so well known is that despite India's emerging market status, it is thought the nation's space industry already generates $7bn in revenue. Morgan Stanley estimates global space industry revenues will increase from the current level of $350bn to $1.1 trillion by 2040.

    Private sector boost

    Sivan said 500 universities and 120 companies, all based in India, have participated in developing and managing various scientific and engineering programs to make the Chandrayaan-2 mission ready for launch.

    "Private sector has got 80 percent of the spend," Sivan said. The private sector "took on 60 percent of the module work. This mission is not only ISRO's project, the country's scientific community and private sector have [also] got involved."

    If successful, Chandrayaan-2 will be a sequel to the ISRO's 2008 Chandrayaan-1 mission, which placed a craft in orbit around the moon, and then launched a lunar impactor. ISRO deliberately dispatched the 35 kg Moon Impact Probe with the specific intent to smash it into the surface of the moon in order to analyze the particles displaced by the crash.

    That was when ISRO, with the assistance of the NASA Moon Minerology Mapper onboard the orbiter, discovered water molecules. Now India wants to go back and find more than just molecules.

    If Chandrayaan-2's Vikram lander (named after Vikram Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space programme) touches down safely, it will lower a ramp and release its main payload, the Pragyan rover. In Sanskrit, Pragyan means "wisdom," while Chandrayaan translates as "moon vehicle."

    The Vikram lander will also be carrying three scientific instruments, which will study seismic activity, the surface's ability to absorb and retain heat, and the moon's ionosphere. The Pragyan rover's instrumentation will study the elements that make up the lunar surface, explicitly but not exclusively the building blocks for water.

    Once on the moon's South Pole, the lander and the rover will be solar-powered, which means their mission lifespans are expected to last one lunar day. Luckily that means almost 15 Earth days of science and data gathering before the sun sets on the moon and the lander and rover.

    The orbiter, which has been outfitted with a variety of technologies to collect data on the moon's surface composition and atmosphere, as well as map the terrain, to include where water ice is located. The orbiter should remain in service for roughly a year.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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