India’s space program has evolved from ancient astronomy to modern lunar exploration. We have emerged as a prominent player, with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) boldly venturing into the cosmos through its missions. Marked by innovation, cost-effectiveness, and national pride, it has propelled India’s space exploration endeavours, uncovering lunar secrets and nurturing global collaborations
By Abhijit Chanda
- Aryabhata-I wrote the first text on astronomy around 499 AD, called ‘Aryabhatiya’. The work deals with mathematics and astronomy
- Mangalyaan was designed for a lifespan of 6 months but survived for 8 years before it was declared non-recoverable in September 2022
- Aditya-L1 will observe the Sun closely and attempt to determine its atmosphere and magnetic field. It has seven payloads on board
- Several countries, including the United States, China, Israel and Japan, have similar ambitions to establish a base on the moon
ASTRONOMY has been the source of so much awe and wonder, leading to so many myths and legends since the birth of humankind. There were many centres of astronomy across Eurasia, from the Greeks in the west to the Chinese in the east. The Islamic scholar Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi wrote ‘The Book of Fixed Stars’, filled with beautiful drawings of the constellations and the names of many stars, which etched into history the Islamic names for many of the distant balls of furious fire.
Indians, too, were gazing up at the night sky and wondering what the stars were. That’s how the 27 Nakshatras were born. From a western perspective, the word only means constellations, but they are actually the names of the stars, representing certain gods or goddesses, that formed the “houses” or “fortresses” of the sky, and the year was divided according to which house the moon was in and which step, or pada, it stayed on. Much of this is the basis of Indian astrology.
Aryabhata-I wrote the first text we have on astronomy around 499 AD, called ‘Aryabhatiya’. The work was written in verse couplets and deals with mathematics and astronomy. It is divided into three sections: Ganita (“Mathematics”), Kala-kriya (“Time Calculations”), and Gola (“Sphere”). In its chapter on astronomy, he described planetary elliptical orbits and astonishingly accurate predictions of eclipses. He also mentioned that the moon and the planets reflected the Sun’s light and that the stars moved across the sky according to the Earth’s rotation. Not surprisingly, the moon has been at the centre of our focus through the ages, being the nightlight of humanity and the centre of our astrological system.
As we learned more about the sky, we also discovered that it was the closest world to us, and if we were to step into the cosmic ocean, this would have to be our first stop. Even though the US put a man on the moon first, primarily to prove a point to the Russians, we have discovered a lot about our natural satellite through the Apollo missions. But there is so much more to discover!
That is why the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been dedicated to exploring this enigmatic body through a series of Lunar missions collectively known as Chandrayaan. (Aptly enough, ISRO’s first launch was a satellite in 1975 called Aryabhata, paying homage to the iconic Indian polymath.) These missions have not only aimed to unlock the moon’s mysteries but also symbolise India’s growing prowess in space exploration.
STEPPING STONES TO SPACE
Chandrayaan 1 – India’s first trip to the moon was the Chandrayaan-1 mission, which was launched successfully on October 22, 2008 from SDSC SHAR, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. This marked India’s first step towards exploring the moon’s surface and gathering vital data. Even as a first mission, Chandrayaan-1 was groundbreaking as it successfully discovered the presence of water on the lunar surface as ice in deep craters near the poles. The spacecraft was orbiting around the Moon at a height of 100 km from the lunar surface for chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. This fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the moon’s composition. All this and more at a total cost of approximately Rs 386 Crore (around $76 million at the time). In comparison, China’s Chang E mission to the moon cost over double that at $180 million.
Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) – Then, in November 2013, ISRO launched its first mission to Mars, Mangalyaan, officially called the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM. This mission was to orbit Mars using a modified version of the Chandrayaan module. One modification, in particular, was larger solar panel arrays due to the sun being a lot dimmer in the orbit of Mars. The craft was also designed to be able to make more decisions by itself since, unlike Chandrayaan, it wouldn’t constantly be in touch with the ground team thanks to the time lag of up to 42 minutes.
It took around 300 days for Mangalyaan to get into orbit around Mars since, thanks to its tight budget and even tighter fuel supply, it had to use gravitational assistance from the Earth to save fuel.
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission of 2013 was not only a scientific achievement, but also a cultural phenomenon. The mission, which reached Mars on its first attempt, received worldwide acclaim and inspired various forms of media. One of them was a book by Minnie Vaid titled ‘Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines’, which celebrated the women scientists who were part of the 500-strong team, with 27% of them in leadership roles.
The Tamil connection refers to the three scientists from Tamil Nadu who have led each of the crucial moon missions of India’s space programme. The first Chandrayaan mission in 2008 was led by Mayilsamy Annadurai, who is known as the ‘Moon Man of India’. The second Chandrayaan mission in 2019 was led by M Vanitha, who was the first woman project director of an ISRO mission. The current Chandrayaan-3 mission is led by M Veeramuthuvel, who is an expert in propulsion systems
Another was a web series called Mission Over Mars, which premiered on Alt Balaji and Zee5, following the success of the movie Mission Mangal, starring Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan. The web series, like the movie, dramatised the challenges and triumphs of the mission and its team.
Mangalyaan was designed for a lifespan of 6 months but survived for 8 years before it was declared non-recoverable in September 2022. Notably, Mangalyaan cost just Rs 450 Crore (around $74 million) to develop, while the NASA Mars Orbiter, Maven, cost over $670 million.
Chandrayaan-2 – Building on these successes, India launched Chandrayaan-2 on July 22, 2019. The mission aimed to further probe the moon’s surface by deploying an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. The spacecraft reached the lunar orbit on 20 August 2019 and began orbital positioning manoeuvres for the landing of the Vikram lander. The lander and the rover were scheduled to land on the near side of the moon, in the south polar region at a latitude of about 70° south on 6 September 2019. However, the lander crashed when it deviated from its intended trajectory while attempting to land on 6 September 2019.
According to a failure analysis report submitted to ISRO, the crash was caused by a software glitch. I still remember watching its progress on the news and the heartbreaking moment when we lost communication with its lander, Vikram, moments before touchdown. Despite this setback, Chandrayaan-2 was considered a major success for India’s space program, as it demonstrated India’s capability to design, build and launch a lunar mission with indigenous technology and at a low cost.
This mission cost around Rs 978 crores (a little over $123 million), which is a fraction of what movies like ‘Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1’ cost to make, which was over Rs 2,400 crores ($290 million), let alone any other space programme.
POLITICAL SUPPORT AND CHALLENGES
It’s not just scientific curiosity that motivates ISRO’s lunar and extraterrestrial endeavours. They also carry significant political and national importance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown his unwavering support, which has been instrumental in shaping India’s space exploration initiatives. In the aftermath of the Chandrayaan-2 setback, he famously stated, “We came very close, but we need to cover more ground. Learning from today will make us stronger and better. The best is yet to come in our space programme. India is with you.”
ISRO employs relatively smaller rockets to launch their missions than their international counterparts. This is to have the modules use the Earth’s gravity to assist their propulsion. That’s why Mangalyaan took over 300 days to reach Mars and why the Chandrayaan missions also took their time to reach the moon. This approach has proven very effective in cutting costs time after time
PM Modi has also said, “The nation is proud of ISRO’s achievements, and it has always shown the way whenever there have been challenges. We are all with them.” While scientific and technological challenges come with the territory of space exploration, political and diplomatic hurdles also play a significant role, especially for government-funded space agencies like ISRO. India’s space programme has had to navigate a complex geopolitical landscape, balancing aspirations for space exploration with the national budget and international partnerships and sensitivities.
One of the notable political challenges ISRO faced was the imposition of technology sanctions in the late 1990s. These sanctions, placed in response to India’s nuclear tests, limited ISRO’s access to critical technologies and components from Western countries. This setback spurred ISRO to develop its own innovative technologies and manufacturing capabilities, leading to a more self-reliant approach that has, in the end, been quite rewarding.
While the world has generally celebrated India’s space achievements, they haven’t been entirely devoid of controversy. Critics have argued that a developing nation like How would that be possible? Much like NASA’s missions led to spinoff innovations like certain forms of artificial limbs, cochlear implants, cordless vacuum cleaners, and even LASIK eye surgery, ISRO’s innovations have already led to the creation of microprocessor-controlled prosthetics, medical ventilators, fire suppression powders, and much more. And with more missions will come even more spinoff technologies that can contribute to industries, healthcare, and the common Indian as well.
INNOVATION AND COST-EFFECTIVENESS
ISRO’s missions, including the Chandrayaan projects, are remarkable for their cost-effectiveness. Chandrayaan 3’s projected cost is expected to be in line with ISRO’s tradition of optimising resources without compromising quality. The focus on frugality hasn’t hampered technological advancement. Rather, it has necessitated innovative engineering solutions and a meticulous approach to mission planning.
ISRO’s cost-effectiveness is a result of several strategies. Firstly, it leverages in-house manufacturing and engineering capabilities, which significantly reduces outsourcing costs. Secondly, ISRO adopts a ‘less is more’ philosophy, focusing on critical elements for mission success while omitting non-essential components. Thirdly, the simultaneous development of multiple missions allows for the sharing of infrastructure and resources, further cutting down expenses. Fourthly, to use less fuel and reduce costs.
ISRO employs relatively smaller rockets to launch their missions than their international counterparts. This is to have the modules use the Earth’s gravity to assist their propulsion. That’s why Mangalyaan took over 300 days to reach Mars and why the Chandrayaan missions also took their time to reach the moon. This approach has proven very effective in cutting costs time after time.
The cost-effectiveness of ISRO’s missions isn’t just a financial accomplishment; it’s a strategic approach that aligns with India’s economic realities. India’s investments in space technology have resulted in a booming space industry, with commercial satellite launches generating revenue. The success of Chandrayaan missions, despite limited budgets, reinforces the idea that even in space exploration, innovation and frugality can go hand in hand.
THE PATH FORWARD: CHANDRAYAAN-3 AND BEYOND
India’s space agency ISRO launched Chandrayaan 3 on July 14, 2023, with the aim of achieving a soft landing on the moon’s south pole. This mission was based on the lessons learned from the previous missions to the moon and Mars, which faced various technical and operational challenges.
The south pole of the moon is a promising site for future missions and settlements, as it may harbour water and other resources. Chandrayaan 3 planned to explore this region for two weeks, using a lander-rover combination to conduct scientific experiments on the lunar surface. Several countries, including the United States, China, Israel and Japan, have similar ambitions to establish a base on the moon. However, only the United States, China and the former Soviet Union have successfully landed on the moon in a controlled manner.
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission of 2013 was not only a scientific achievement, but also a cultural phenomenon. The mission, which reached Mars on its first attempt, received worldwide acclaim and inspired various forms of media. One of them was a book by Minnie Vaid titled ‘Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines’, which celebrated the women scientists who were part of the 500-strong team, with 27% of them in leadership roles
The European Space Agency (ESA) director general Josef Aschbacher was among the first to congratulate India’s ISRO. “What a way to demonstrate new technologies AND achieve India’s first soft landing on another celestial body. Well done, I am thoroughly impressed,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. Senator Bill Nelson, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator, also praised India. “We’re glad to be your partner on this mission!” he posted on social media. NASA and ESA provided tracking support to the Chandrayaan-3 mission.
The leaders of ISRO have shown their dedication and vision in leading these missions. K Sivan, ISRO’s Chairman, has been at the forefront of these missions, providing technical acumen and unwavering determination. He emphasises, “We have the required technology for Chandrayaan 3, which will have a lander-rover combination.” Such affirmations instil confidence in the agency’s ability to overcome challenges.
In the words of K Sivan, “Every mission is a risk, and we are always learning.” The Chandrayaan missions exemplify not only India’s scientific prowess but also its spirit of continuous learning and exploration.
Russia’s Luna 25, launched just two weeks ago, swung past Chandrayaan to get to the moon first, only for the lander to crash land soon after—even more evidence that shows us this seemingly short trip is far from easy and yet another analogy for the tale of the race between the hare and the tortoise.
Apart from the planned soft-landing on the lunar surface, the Chandrayaan-3 mission by ISRO has two other notable features: its Tamil connection and its scientific payload onboard the propulsion module. The Tamil connection refers to the three scientists from Tamil Nadu who have led each of the crucial moon missions of India’s space programme. The first Chandrayaan mission in 2008 was led by Mayilsamy Annadurai, who is known as the ‘Moon Man of India’. The second Chandrayaan mission in 2019 was led by M Vanitha, who was the first woman project director of an ISRO mission. The current Chandrayaan-3 mission is led by M Veeramuthuvel, who is an expert in propulsion systems.
To successfully have the rover navigate across the Moon’s surface and to conduct scientific experiments on the Moon, most importantly, to examine the water on the moon for future missions and the plausibility of refuelling future missions to Mars or even for round-trips back to Earth: The Vikram Lander (named after Dr Vikram Sarabai, an exemplary physicist and founder of ISRO) is equipped with:
RAMBHA and LP: Radio Anatomy of Moon Bound Hypersensitive ionosphere and Atmosphere and Langmuir Probe to study the density of the plasma of ions and electrons near the lunar surface and how it changes with time.
ChaSTE: Chandra’s Surface Thermophysical Experiment to measure the temperature of the lunar surface near the poles.
ILSA: The Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity is used to detect moonquakes near the landing site and what it can tell about the Moon’s mantle and crust.
LRA: Laser Retroreflector Array on the Rover will help us understand the dynamics of the Moon and its orbit around Earth The Chandrayaan-3 Launch module has
SHAPE: Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth (SHAPE) looks back at Earth to understand how we can detect habitability and even life from the light it reflects from the sun. This could be very helpful in our search for life in the universe as we find more exoplanets.
After the dust had settled, the Vikram module’s side panels opened up as ramps for Pragyaan, the wise little rover of the module, to roll onto the lunar surface to examine the soil, take detailed images, and send them back to Vikram. As it rolls around at a breakneck speed of 1 cm per second, it will leave ISRO’s logo imprinted into the lunar soil from its wheels. It is equipped with two instruments—the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), mounted on the Pragyan, will make the measurements of lunar surface elements at the stop-points (once in about 4.5 hours) along the Rover track, that will help us understand the chemicals and minerals in the soil and rocks of the lunar surface.
THE FUTURE APPROACHES
In the words of Carl Sagan, ““The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
ISRO has planned future missions to study the sun (Aditya-L1), look at the universe with X-ray eyes (XPoSat), to look at Earth’s natural disasters from a new perspective (NISAR), and to run experiments on how two spacecraft can dock while orbiting around Earth (SPADEX).
Aditya-L1 will observe the Sun closely and attempt to determine its atmosphere and magnetic field. It has seven payloads (instruments) on board to study the Sun’s Corona, solar emissions, solar winds and flares, and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). Observing the Sun is important since all planets, including Earth and the exoplanets beyond the Solar System, evolve based on their parent stars. Environment and solar weather influence the entire system’s weather. In addition to affecting satellite orbits or shortening their lives, severe weather can interfere with or damage onboard electronics, cause power outages, and disrupt life on Earth. In order to understand space weather, we must understand solar events.
ISRO’s satellites play a pivotal role in enhancing agricultural yield, overseeing soil conditions, and regulating water resources for farmers. Moreover, these satellites aid meteorologists in forecasting cyclones, monsoons, and droughts, enabling the establishment of early alert mechanisms for natural calamities. Beyond this, ISRO’s satellites contribute to extending telemedicine, tele-education, and e-governance services to underserved and rural regions
These endeavours are a part of India taking its first step into the cosmic ocean, and the universe spreads out before us, just waiting to be explored. We may not be the richest country on this journey, but we are no less innovative and resourceful than anyone else. India, through ISRO, will continue its voyage, tenaciously, to the stars.
India should prioritise addressing domestic challenges like poverty or medical infrastructure, but I also think that space exploration can be beneficial for the country and the world. As Dr Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister, stated, “Space research has a vital role in improving the quality of life of the people and in addressing the basic needs of the common man.” This sentiment underscores the belief that space exploration can contribute to advancements in various sectors, including agriculture, weather forecasting, and disaster management.
ISRO’s satellites play a pivotal role in enhancing agricultural yield, overseeing soil conditions, and regulating water resources for farmers. Moreover, these satellites aid meteorologists in forecasting cyclones, monsoons, and droughts, enabling the establishment of early alert mechanisms for natural calamities. Beyond this, ISRO’s satellites contribute to extending telemedicine, tele-education, and e-governance services to underserved and rural regions.
Space exploration can also inspire young minds to pursue science and technology careers, and foster innovation and creativity. ISRO’s missions have generated public interest and enthusiasm for space science and engineering, and have showcased India’s talent and potential on the global stage. Space exploration can also create opportunities for international cooperation and collaboration, as well as economic growth and development.