Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW DELHI — From small beginnings less than 40 years ago, India’s national space program has come far. Now, it just has 238,855 miles to go — all the way to the moon.

Chandrayaan-1, India’s unmanned moon mission set for 2007, would make India the fourth country to reach the moon, after the United States, Russia and Japan.

Its main objective is to provide a three-dimension, high-resolution map of the entire lunar surface from orbit, and it will also include a U.S. payload that may finally be able to discover evidence of water on the moon.

But almost as important, it would bring this developing nation into the ranks of superpowers that have reached deep space.

Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan was chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) when the mission was conceived. In an interview with India Today magazine in 2000 he said: “If we go ahead, it will demonstrate to the world that India is capable of taking up a complex mission that is the cutting edge of space research.” India launched its first rocket in 1963, fewer than 20 years after gaining independence from Britain. In 1969, the ISRO was established.

Though it has not yet conducted a manned space mission (the first Indian in space was Rakesh Sharma, who went up with a Soviet mission in 1984), the ISRO has focused on low-cost satellites and developing remote sensing for imaging and mapping.

The Chandrayaan-1 mission is by far one of India’s most ambitious efforts. It’s running neck-and-neck with the Chinese moon orbiter mission, proposed for 2007-2008. However, the Chinese mission does not include any contact with the lunar surface and a lander isn’t expected until after 2010.

Race with China denied

ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair denies that India and China are in a race to space. “With a large scientific community and with substantial capability to build and launch satellites … Chandrayaan-1 is a logical step for India,” he said.

The mission Chandrayaan, which means “moon craft” in Sanskrit, will touch the moon but with something more like a cargo drop than a robotic probe. The impact of the 55-pound load on the surface of the moon will be monitored, and its contents will evaluate the makeup of the atmosphere and take close-up photographs of the surface. Mostly, it will be a test of Indian capabilities for a potential future landing.

The 1,157-pound satellite will be placed in orbit around the moon and will have a lifetime of two years. The mission cost is equivalent to about $89 million.

George Joseph, a retired ISRO leader who heads the scientific advisory board for Chandrayaan-1, said that though 98 percent of the moon has already been mapped, most of it was done to identify landing spots, which are the only parts mapped in high resolution. The ISRO also plans to do chemical mapping of the entire lunar surface for elements such as aluminum, silicon, calcium and iron, all of which would be essential resources for future colonization.

The mission will carry U.S. and European scientific devices. One American device to be on board is a moon mineralogy mapper developed by Brown University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Another will be a miniature synthetic aperture radar from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to map the polar landscape and suspected ice deposits.

While water is thought to be frozen in deep craters on the moon, there is no solid evidence. The U.S. lunar prospector, launched in 1998, was plunged into the moon to try to kick up enough debris to show whether water particles were present. None were detected.

PSLV with nukes?

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has already put many satellites into space, will be used to send Chandrayaan-1 to the moon. Many journalists and space watchers have pointed out that using the PSLV will help India refine its long-range missile-guidance and -control systems, and it is thought that the PSLV, if re-engineered, would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

M. Krishnamurthy, the ISRO public relations officer, maintains that the defense and space departments are entirely separate organizations.

India’s space forays have not only proved the country’s ability, they’ve proved economical as well. Indian space missions, especially those launched from reusable vehicles like the PSLV, are about 30 percent cheaper than the same class of vehicles elsewhere, Mr. Krishnamurthy said.

Space ‘outsourcing’

India launched German and South Korean satellites in 1999, and has since been known for putting commercial satellites into space at a cost savings of thousands of dollars per pound.

Still, many people criticize the Indian government for spending money on space when much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Mr. Joseph, the scientific advisory board leader, disagrees. He echoes the sentiments of Vikram Sarabhai, the man considered to be the father of India’s space program and the first director of the ISRO. “It’s not whether we can afford to do it, it’s whether we can afford not to do it,” Mr. Joseph said. “Science always leads to more productive technologies,” he added.

India does have many satellites for social welfare in space. It recently launched EDUSAT, which will be used for long-distance education broadcasts to villages.

In spite of its many satellites, the moon mission will be India’s first voyage into deep space, and the costs will be steep. But making room for foreign payloads has certainly given the voyage a more international appeal.

Opportunities abound

Mr. Nair, the ISRO chairman, agreed that “India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission offers an outstanding opportunity to begin cooperation in space exploration,” and says that the cooperation of the Indo-U.S. joint working group, which was set up in 2004, on this mission will further the goals of both countries in space.

NASA thinks that its participation in this program will be an important contribution to the Vision for U.S. Space Exploration announced by President Bush. Beyond satellite launches, India may well see success in cooperating with other space agencies to handle software, data and analysis.

There is a lot of human labor involved in space systems, said Mr. Joseph, and much of it involves sifting through the reams of data that satellites and probes transmit daily. He thinks that since the salaries of Indian scientists are much lower than those in the West, and India has a large scientific talent pool, this could be an opportunity for the country in the future.

At the Indian Science Congress in 2003, there was even discussion of the United States using Indian scientists to sift through voluminous U.S. satellite data. The ISRO confirmed that talks on this subject are continuing. Mr. Joseph’s opinion is that the future of successful international research in space will be “not competing, but complementary. Consolidation will lessen cost and benefit all mankind.”

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