After days of drama and suspense similar to a thrilling five-day cricket match--due to rain and thunderstorms lashing the Sriharikota spaceport--Chandrayaan-1, India’s first unmanned lunar mission, was successfully launched, on October 22, 2008, marking a historic moment in India’s space exploration programme.
“Our journey to the Moon has just begun,” G. Madhavan Nair, the then chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said after the launch. “Everything went on perfectly well. It is a remarkable performance by the PSLV.”
At 6:22 a.m., the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)-XL rocket shot into a dark sky; the four stages ignited and fell away on time. About 18 minutes and 20 seconds after take-off, the rocket’s fourth stage injected Chandrayaan-1 into its initial orbit at a velocity of 9.25 km a second. The ecstatic scientists and engineers at Sriharikota (Nellore District, Andhra Pradesh), who had worked tirelessly on the project for years, flashed victory signs. The Rs. 400 crore mission, a significant milestone in India’s space programme, included a lunar orbiter and an impactor. The remote sensing lunar satellite, with a mass of 1,380 kg at launch and 675 kg in lunar orbit, carried high-resolution equipment.
Seventeen days after the launch, the vehicle was successfully inserted into the lunar orbit.
The Moon Impact Probe separated from the Chandrayaan orbiter on November 14, 2008 and struck the south pole, making India join a very select group of nations that have their flags on the Moon. After hitting the surface near a crater, it ejected underground soil, which was then tested for the presence of lunar water ice.
The seed of India’s Moon mission was sowed when the Indian Academy of Sciences mooted the idea to undertake a scientific probe to the moon. A National Lunar Mission Task Force was constituted by ISRO to take a closer look at what such a mission would involve, its feasibility, and its objectives. The central government gave its go-ahead. The then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, mentioned the project in a speech in 2003. Then it was countdown to 2008.
Two years before the launch, ISRO’s Physical Research Laboratory Director V. N. Goswami said that the mission’s main objective was to investigate the mineral and chemical distribution on the lunar surface. “Our mission will, for the first time, explore the topography of the moon. It is important to know — as once a manned mission is there, we should know where humans should go.”
The mission had several scientific instruments. These included the Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer, developed by Britain’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in collaboration with ISRO, to measure abundance of elements such as magnesium and aluminium over the lunar surface; the Smart Near-Infrared Spectrometer, developed by Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Science, for exploring mineral resources, formation of features on the moon’s surface and layers of its crust; the Sub-Kiloelectronvolt Atom Reflecting Analyser, developed by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in collaboration with the Space Physics Laboratory of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, to study the ways in which the surface of the moon interacts with the solar wind, and its magnetic anomalies; a Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar to map the cold regions and scan for ice deposits; and a Moon Mineralogy Mapper.
The continued interest in exploring the Moon was explained in a report from the U.S. National Research Council published in 2007, titled ‘The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon’: “We know more about many aspects of the Moon than about any world beyond our own, and yet we have barely begun to solve its countless mysteries ... The Moon is, above all, a witness to 4.5 billion years ... of solar system history, and it has recorded that history more completely and more clearly than any other planetary body.”
Around nine months after the Chandrayaan launch, there was a glitch in the satellite’s ‘star sensors’, which help in determining the orientation. ISRO attributed the technical snag to “excessive radiation from the sun” that can degrade devices in the sensors.
Eventually, the mission was declared over on 29 August after Chandrayaan stopped sending radio signals. Though it operated for 312 days instead of the planned two years, the mission achieved 95 percent of its planned objectives, ISRO said.
Among other achievements, the mineral content on the lunar surface was mapped with the Moon Mineralogy Mapper; the changes in rock and mineral composition were identified; the Oriental Basin region of the Moon was mapped; and mapping of the Moon missions landing sites was carried out.
Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first lunar mission but certainly not the last. When Chandrayaan-2, India’s second lunar exploration mission, proceeds to its launch stage and beyond, the experience gained from Chandrayaan-1 would surely have played an important role. Building on its success would be the goal for India’s space scientists in the future.
Also on this day:
1900 — Ashfaqulla Khan, freedom fighter, was born
1935 — Kader Khan, Hindi film actor, was born
1947 — Deepak Chopra, Indian-American spiritual guru, was born
1954 — Jibanananda Das, Bengali poet and writer, passed away