In the heat of the mid-afternoon sun, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft lifted off from the second launchpad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, carrying the hopes of more than a billion people on a historic journey to the moon.
Moments after the launch, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Special moments that will be etched in the annals of our glorious history!”
But these moments were anxious and did not arrive without their share of stumbles and hiccups. This was India’s second attempt in a week to get the remotely piloted spacecraft – and the first flight of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) – off the ground.
When it was announced that the spacecraft had separated from the launch vehicle’s last stage, achieving geosynchronous orbit, the visible anxiety inside the control room was broken by Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), jumping out of his chair and raising both hands up in triumph.
“My dear friends, today is a historic day for space, science and technology in India,” Sivan said. “After a technical snag, we bounced back with flying colours.”
Today’s launch, at 2:43pm IST (09:13 GMT), was ISRO’s second attempt to send its lander-rover spacecraft to the moon’s South Pole. Because of that “technical snag”, the Indian space agency had cancelled the first launch attempt on July 15 – with just 56 minutes left on the countdown clock.
Within 24 hours of the cancelled launch, ISRO identified the problem in the three-stage launch vehicle as a leak in a “nipple joint”. The now-repaired leak was reported to be in the third-stage cryogenic engine system, which the space agency claimed was the trickiest of the three.
This launch was the first anxious step in the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft’s month-and-a-half long voyage, which ISRO hopes will place the nation’s space programme into an elite club of spacefaring nations. Chandrayaan-2 is a highly challenging multistage moon mission to inject into lunar orbit a spacecraft carrying a landing craft and a lunar rover.
Once the Chandrayaan-2 is in the correct orbit around the moon, the lunar lander should separate away from the main spacecraft and attempt a controlled descent to the moon’s surface at the South Pole. Only then will the science and the search for water – which many believe will serve future human missions to the moon and beyond – begin.
Special moments that will be etched in the annals of our glorious history!
The launch of #Chandrayaan2 illustrates the prowess of our scientists and the determination of 130 crore Indians to scale new frontiers of science.
Every Indian is immensely proud today! pic.twitter.com/v1ETFneij0
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 22, 2019
What ISRO hopes to attempt on the moon is called a “soft landing”, a technological feat that only the former Soviet Union, the United States and China have so far achieved. In April, an Israeli team saw their Beresheet lander fail to slow down and then slam into the lunar surface, leaving just a barely discernible crater marking the location of the wreckage.
For India, just getting off the ground has been a journey in itself. Chandrayaan-2 and its rocket, the GSLV-Mark III, first slated to launch in 2017, have both been beset by years of development delays.
ISRO ended up having to develop most of the technology on its own after Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities pulled out of a joint development agreement for the lander in 2011. Roscosmos left the Chandrayaan-2 project after the failure of its mission to the Martian moon of Phobos.
Despite what would usually be very expensive setbacks, India’s space programme is delivering the Chandrayaan-2 mission at a cut-rate price tag of just $141m. And that number covers the rocket, orbiter, lander, rover and all but one of the scientific payloads.
ISRO has kept Chandrayaan-2’s costs low mostly because the spacecraft’s course is not direct or comparatively fast. NASA‘s Apollo 11, whose mission took place 50 years ago this week, spirited its astronauts to the moon in 75 hours and 56 minutes, but only by using a huge initial-stage rocket, and a lot of fuel for every engine stage thereafter.
Chandrayaan-2 will take roughly a month and a half, with 15 critical course manoeuvres, which are quick, but expensive, engine burns. The idea is to keep raising the spacecraft into higher earth orbits, until it can jump over into a lunar orbit, also known as trans-lunar injection.
The final five manoeuvres will be to lower the craft’s lunar orbit and reach the perfect location to support lander operations. Despite the delay in launch, ISRO is predicting Chandrayaan-2’s lander will touch down as scheduled, no later than September 7.