The universe is our playground Bengaluru (India)
The silent space surrounding the moon could soon be busy with the movement of active satellites from different countries in its parent planet. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 is now orbiting in an elliptical orbit over the polar regions of the moon. ISRO launched Chandrayaan-1 (meaning ‘moon craft’) successfully on 22 October 2008, thereby joining the space faring countries in the lunar race. Launched at a cost of about $75 million, Chandrayaan-I will remain in its orbit for about two years. This is especially significant because of the renewed interest in the Earth’s lone satellite after a lull of many decades.
The moon has always been a source of mystery to the human race. It has been associated with mythology and beauty. Being the nearest celestial body, it continues to be a source of great interest to the space scientists. The lunar mission is seen as an important milestone in the space journey.
In the early 1960s the race for the moon was between the US and the USSR. However, the USSR nearly abandoned its lunar mission in the 1970s. Russia is now planning to launch its lunar project ‘Luna-Glob’ in the next few years. The US agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) are expected to provide significant information to help plan for an advanced manned lunar mission in the next decade. LRO is scheduled for launch in April this year while GRAIL is planned for 2011.
ISRO is conscious of the fact that although other countries have undertaken space missions, the data is often not shared. So, India launched its own lunar mission. China is also moving ahead in space, with plans to send (three more) robotic explorers to the moon by 2020.
Its first lunar satellite Chang'e-1, named after (the) legendary Chinese moon goddess, impacted the moon this year. In the global scene, India has set an example of international cooperation by carrying foreign payloads on Chandrayaan-1.
Chandrayaan-1 should help ISRO improve technology for future missions (and) could provide information about the availability of Helium-3 on the moon.
Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of helium considered as a comparatively clean fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors.
Riding high on the success of Chandrayaan-I, ISRO plans to launch Chandrayaan-2 in 2012. Chandrayaan-2 will be launched on India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The mission has been allocated a budget of $86.6 million (Rs 425 crore). Chandrayaan-2 will comprise a lander and a robotic rover, which will soft land on the moon. The robot will take samples from the lunar surface for analysis and will transmit the data back to the earth. ISRO has already signed a pact with the Russian federal space agency (Roscosmos) for the mission. According to the pact, Roscosmos will be responsible for the Lander/Rover.
While Chandrayaan-1 is yet to unload many of its secrets, ISRO is aggressively pursuing its future projects such as the solar mission, Aditya, a satellite to study solar emissions. With the design in place, the mission will be launched in a couple of years. Aditya is reportedly the first space based solar mission planned to study corona, the sun’s outer layer. There are limitations to studying corona from the earth as it is visible only during solar eclipses. The earth’s atmosphere also scatters sunlight. This makes a space mission to study corona even more significant.
ISRO’s study on a Mars mission is also underway. The orbiter mission to Mars aims to study the Martian atmosphere, weather and solar wind-Mars interactions. According to ISRO, setting up a base in the moon could help future space explorations. A long trip to a celestial body such as the Mars could use the moon as an intermediate base. Mission to Mars is likely to could happen around 2019. Missions to other planets could well become a reality in the long term.
India’s manned mission to space at a cost $2.3 billion (Rs 12,000 crore) could be expected before 2015. While ISRO is not averse to international cooperation, it prefers to be self-reliant. ISRO’s manned mission into space has been approved by the Space Commission and is awaiting the government’s approval.
Asteroid or comet flyby flights could also become future missions. This could study the surface and interior of comet nucleus, composition of dust and gas in the comet, solar radiations and also bring samples of comet dust for study.
NASA is currently in the news for its Kepler mission, which aims to explore outer space for alien life. If all goes well, the mission will be launched in Florida on Friday night, 6 March, local time. The Kepler mission is a $600-million mission in search of habitable planets.
China, the US and Japan are going ahead with major plans for space exploration. Everyone wants a share of the outer space. While ISRO says it is not interested in a space war, it also does not want to be lagging behind in enhancing its competence to explore space. The possibilities awaiting the space explorers could very well challenge human imagination.