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Monday Morning Meeting on “India’s Moon Program”

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  • August 28, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Gp. Capt. (Dr.) Ajey Lele (Retd), Consultant, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, spoke on “India’s Moon Program” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 28 August 2023. The session was moderated by Dr. Cherian Samuel, Research Fellow, MP-IDSA. The scholars of MP-IDSA were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    India's space journey began on 21 November 1963, with the launch of a US Nike Apache sounding rocket from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram. Following this, the Indian Space Program went through various phases, the latest being the moon program. The discussion also highlighted the differences between Chandrayaan 1, Chandrayaan 2, and Chandrayaan 3 Missions, and shed light on India's commitment to using space technology for societal betterment and knowledge advancement rather than merely competing with more technologically advanced nations. This approach aligns with Sarabhai's original vision and emphasizes India's unique and innovative contributions to global challenges through space technology.

    Detailed Report

    In his opening remarks, Dr. Lele elaborated on the beginning of the Indian Space Program. The nation embarked on its celestial journey on 21 November 1963, when the US Nike Apache sounding rocket took off from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram. This maiden step epitomised the visionary aspirations of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who prioritised the quest for solutions to societal issues over any desire to outpace advanced nations in the space race. Dr. Lele also elucidated how humanity has always been fixated on the moon and other celestial bodies, often exemplified through artistic and poetic expressions. With scientific advancement and the incessant quest for exploring Space, humanity reached the lunar surface when Neil Armstrong became the first human to reach the Moon.

    Dr. Lele also emphasised the significant role played by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in the development of India’s rural areas by investing in and leveraging remote sensing to supply relevant information to stakeholders. In fact, ISRO's substantial budget goes to projects to address broader societal problems. Furthermore, for India, the Moon became an agenda in the 2000s when the Government of India approved ISRO's proposal for the first Indian Moon Mission, called Chandrayaan-1 in November 2003. Later the Space Law and Planetary Exploration Conference was organized in Bangalore from 26- 29 June 2005.

    Furthermore, he provided more detailed explanations of the prevailing theories concerning the Moon's evolution, encompassing concepts such as the Capture Theory, Fission Theory, and various others. Capture Theory suggests that the Moon was a wandering celestial body like a asteroid and was captured by Earth’s gravity as it passed nearby. The Fission Theory suggests that Moon was once part of Earth that broke away and began to orbit the planet. The other prevailing explanation about the existence of Moon is that a planet called Theia interacted with Earth with some of the resulting debris gathering to form the Moon. The Moon's topography presents a significant challenge due to its extreme temperature. The temperatures at the Moon can plummet to as low as -130 degrees Celsius.

    Dr. Lele delved into the distinctions between the Chandrayaan 1, Chandrayaan 2, and Chandrayaan 3 Missions, shedding light on the rationale behind humanity's lunar endeavors. Dr. Lele explained that the Chandrayaan 1 Mission, initially designed for a two-year duration, ultimately remained operational for only one year. It entered lunar orbit at an altitude of 100 kilometers to capture images of the Moon's surface. Additionally, Chandrayaan 1 was equipped with 11 scientific instruments from various international partners and successfully detected the presence of water on the Moon. The data provided by Chandrayaan's 11 payloads were used by the scientific community to study the Moon and its environment and played a significant role in bettering our understanding of the Moon.

    At the outset, Chandrayaan 2 was conceived as a collaborative endeavor between ISRO and Russia's Roscosmos. In this arrangement, ISRO was responsible for supplying the orbiter, and rover, and overseeing the launch, while Russia's role was to furnish the lander. Subsequently, ISRO decided to proceed independently and assumed the responsibility of developing the lander on its own. The Chandrayaan 2 Mission's failure can be attributed to two primary factors. One of these factors was a software glitch, and the other was a deviation in the trajectory when the spacecraft was at an altitude ranging from 2.1 to 0.2 kilometers above the intended landing zone. Despite these setbacks, the mission yielded a wealth of valuable data about the Moon's terrain, including insights into its craters and other features.

    Chandrayan 3 was a solo mission, featuring only one NASA sensor. ISRO capitalised on the lessons learned from the setbacks encountered during the Chandrayaan 2 Mission. The mission design employed a failure-based approach, with extensive simulations conducted to address potential challenges. To ensure the mission's success, significant enhancements were made to the algorithms. Hardware modifications included reinforcing the lander's legs, and equipping it with four engines.

    Expanding on the mission payloads and objectives, Dr. Lele provided some additional details. The lander is equipped with three payloads, and the rover also carried two payloads of its own. These payloads are specifically designed for tasks such as analysing the chemical and elemental composition of lunar soil and measuring its thermophysical properties.

    In a more detailed discussion on the global lunar exploration agenda, Dr. Lele highlighted key milestones and initiatives. The Soviets were the pioneers in achieving a robotic lunar landing. Several decades ago, Japan articulated ambitious lunar plans, although progress has been relatively slow. More recently, countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have shown significant interest in developing their Space Programs.

    South Korea successfully launched the Danuri, also known as the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), to the Moon. Israel, with its limited Space Program mandate, made history with Beresheet, its first lunar mission.

    The United States introduced the Artemis program, encompassing both robotic and human lunar exploration efforts. NASA leads this program, with support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Space agencies in Japan and Canada.

    China embarked on its lunar journey with the launch of Chang'e 1, an orbiter, in October 2007. The first successful Chinese lunar landing occurred during the Chang'e 3 Mission, which included a lander and rover system. Presently, China operates the Chang'e 4 and Chang'e 5 systems, with the latter achieving a successful sample return mission from the Moon.

    Dr. Lele went on to emphasise the significance of Moon missions, underscoring their primary objectives. One of the key aims of these missions is to locate sources of water that can be used to support human activities during future lunar missions. Additionally, the Moon is known to have valuable mineral resources, including rare earth metals (RREs), which are essential for various technological applications. Furthermore, the lunar surface also has an abundance of non-radioactive helium-3, a resource scarcely found on Earth. According to theoretical calculations, helium-3 holds great potential for powering nuclear fusion reactors, offering a promising avenue for clean and efficient energy generation. Moreover, Moon missions carry geopolitical advantages, as they enable participating nations to establish a presence and influence in space exploration, which can have broader implications for international relations and cooperation.

    The successful outcome of the Chandrayaan 3 Mission holds several positive implications for India. Firstly, it can pave the way for increased collaboration on international Space projects involving India, fostering stronger ties in the field of Space exploration. Additionally, such missions have the potential to popularize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in India, inspiring and educating the next generation of scientists and engineers. Successful lunar missions can also lead to the emergence of technology spin-off companies, capitalising on the innovations and expertise developed during these missions to fuel entrepreneurship and innovation in various sectors.

    Questions and Comments

    The floor was opened for questions and comments. When asked about how India's Chandrayaan 3 Mission fits into the Artemis Accord, Dr. Lele expressed some skepticism regarding the Accord but found it to be an interestingly designed document. He mentioned that India has been steadily building its heavy lift capacity domestically and has been working on semi-cryogenic technology, which has the potential to transport heavy payloads in the future.

    Dr. Lele also emphasised that using terms like 'Space race' is unnecessary when discussing India's Space endeavors due to the country's limitations. Instead, he suggested that it is more productive to consider how such missions can benefit humanity as a whole.

    Regarding the role of private players in India's Space programs, he acknowledged that ISRO depends on private players to a certain extent, but he noted that in the United States, private companies play a more prominent role, particularly in the forefront of Space exploration. He also mentioned ISRO's commitment to avoiding the militarisation of Space missions. Furthermore, he encouraged the strategic community to focus on the technological advancements and spinoff technologies that can be derived from such missions.

    The Report has been prepared by Mr. Rohit K. Sharma, Research Analyst, Strategic Technologies Centre, MP-IDSA.