India having broken its nuclear shackles, the country is now racing to reach the moon. This will make India the sixth country in the world to attempt a mission to the moon. The country’s maiden spacecraft to the moon, Chandrayaan 1, is now being accommodated atop our workhorse rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), and the journey is all set to begin on the morning of October 22 from a nondescript island in the Bay of Bengal.
Chandrayaan 1 is a Maruti 800-sized unmanned satellite that will orbit the moon for two years, mapping its resources. The Indian mission is carrying the largest suite of instruments in more than a half century of lunar exploration. Eleven scientific instruments will work in tandem to generate a three-dimensional atlas of the moon at a resolution of 5 metres. The lunar surface is still sketchy although 12 humans have walked on it.
The $100 million mission is going to be the most intense search for water that has ever been conducted on the moon, particularly in the dark craters around the poles. Finding water on the moon is a significant objective as humans hope to establish permanent colonies there and may decide to use it as a staging point for travel to Mars and other planets. Carting water across 400,000 km will be prohibitively expensive. The Indian mission will also search for Helium 3, a possible panacea for the earth’s ever-growing energy needs. Helium 3 could feed future nuclear fusion reactors and offer a clean source of energy.
Chandrayaan 1 has as many as 14 international partners. Two instruments from Nasa and four from Britain, Germany, Bulgaria and Sweden are being ferried free in return for shared scientific data they collect from the lunar surface.
One of the first tasks for Chandrayaan 1 is to place the Indian flag on the moon. This will happen when the orbiting satellite drops a probe on the surface, a feat not attempted in 32 years. If successful, India will become the fourth country after Russia, America and, possibly, Japan to have placed their national emblems on the moon.
With moon as the first stepping stone, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) also set its eyes on several deep space missions that includes sending a soil-analyser buggy to the moon by 2012. Another mission to study the sun, called Aditya, is being planned while missions to Mars and an asteroid are also on the anvil. Isro also reckons it can undertake a manned space flight within eight years of a go-ahead from the government but this will cost Rs 10,000 crore.
Pallava Bagla is a correspondent for Science.