India launches moon mission in bid to probe lunar south pole

Country’s most ambitious mission yet aims to establish it as low-cost space power

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-2 launches at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, on Monday. Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-2 launches at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, on Monday. Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

 

India has successfully launched its second unmanned mission to the moon a week after an earlier blast-off was abandoned following a technological hitch.

“We bounced back with flying colours after a technical snag,” said K Sivan, head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which launched Chandrayaan-2 – meaning Moon Mission in Sanskrit – into orbit at 2.43pm on Monday from the Sriharikota space station in southern India.

The earlier countdown on July 15th was aborted 56 minutes before its scheduled lift-off, following the reported leakage of helium gas from the spacecraft’s cryogenic engine.

Mr Sivan said the snag had been rectified within 48 hours and the 640-ton spacecraft was readied for take-off in the one-minute “window of opportunity” that presented itself on Monday.

Launched aboard an indigenously designed Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III, the spacecraft will touch down on the moon after a 48-day journey on September 6th to begin its exploratory missions.

The extended journey is because the spacecraft will pursues a circuitous route to the moon, taking advantage of the Earth’s gravity, as ISRO does not have a rocket powerful enough to hurl Chandrayaan-2 directly to its destination.

“The last 15 minutes to the landing are going to be the most terrifying for us,” Mr Sivan told the media, adding that variations in lunar gravity, terrain and dust could all cause problems. It is the most complex mission ISRO has ever undertaken, he said.

South pole

It will also be the first to land on the moon’s south pole to search for the existence of water and to map its surface.

If successful, it will make India the fourth country in the world after China, Russia and the US to execute a “soft landing” on the moon and deploy an investigative rover to probe its secrets.

Chandrayaan-2 has three distinct components. It includes an “orbiter” designed to record images of the lunar surface and “sniff” the atmosphere and a “lander” which carries a six-wheeled rover to investigate the moon’s soil.

The rover, which has a fortnight-long lifespan, is capable of travelling about half a kilometre at microcosmic speed from the lander and relaying data and images back to ISRO on Earth during its journey.

“India can hope to get the first selfies from the lunar surface once the rover gets going,” Mr Sivan said.

India’s moon mission, estimated to cost €134 million, involves some 1,000 scientists, engineers and technicians and is headed by two women: programme director Muthaya Vanitha and mission director Ritu Karidhal.

The mission was originally planned as a collaborative effort with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, but was scrapped in 2013 due to technical differences.

Earlier Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar mission in 2008, did not land on the moon, but carried out a detailed search for water using advanced radars.

Six years later India successfully launched an unmanned Mars mission to gather images and data to help determine how Martian weather systems work.

Last year India’s prime minister Narendra Modi declared that ISRO would execute a manned space mission by 2022 to celebrate the country’s 75th independence anniversary.

Critics, however, said all such activity in space would necessitate doubling ISRO’s budget to about €4.5 billion, an amount that could be spent to help alleviate poverty, provide drinking water to millions and generate employment.

Senior officials said the technical spin-offs from space exploration were immense and would benefit India greatly, especially its poor, but were unable to elaborate.