India's GSLV Mark III launcher that launched the Moon mission to explore its South Pole. Photo: ISRO

India’s ambitious Chandrayaan 2 (Moon Vehicle) headed off into space – at 2.43pm local time this afternoon – aimed for the South Pole of the moon, an area that remains unexplored so far.

This was India’s second moon mission after one in 2008 that discovered water molecules on the planet’s surface.

The latest mission occurred after an initial launch attempt was aborted on July 15, following the discovery of a fuel leak in the engine. That caused scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to postpone the historic venture.

“We did not want a repeat of the Challenger or Columbia shuttle crashes and we decided to err on the side of caution,” an ISRO scientist told Asia Times.

As the world watched anxiously, India’s space scientists went back to the drawing board, looking for another window to launch the mission. “The trajectory of the launch depends on a number of key factors such as the position of the moon, the flight path and many other complex issues. So we needed to be sure that the window was right to launch the mission,” the scientist said.

Exploring Moon’s South Pole

Buoyed by the success of the Chandrayan 1 mission in 2008, ISRO began to plan the second mission targeting the moon’s South Pole.

The earlier mission led to the discovery of water molecules, a finding that drew worldwide acclaim. While ISRO’s space missions are incredibly cheap, compared to NASA’s missions, they are also less complex and carry a much lesser payload. However, the discovery of water molecules led to a major boost to India’s space program. The current mission’s cost is pegged at US$140 million, a pittance compared to NASA’s missions.

“This time Chandrayaan 2 will continue to look for the presence of water molecules in the South Pole of the moon and see how far below the surface it is available,” Dr Raji Rajgopalan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told Asia Times.

Dr Raji heads the space and nuclear studies program and has been tracking India’s efforts for nearly a decade. “India’s space missions are complementary in nature and try to ensure there is no duplication with what the US or China or other space agencies are doing. This ensures that there is maximum data available from different missions, which can be collated for a better understanding of our ambitions on the moon,” she said.

Once in the moon’s orbit, ISRO will launch the Pragyaan rover to try to land on the moon and start some experiments. The Chandrayaan 2 satellite will continue to orbit around the moon, picking up telemetry from the Pragyan rover and transmitting that data back to India.

The Pragyan rover will land on the Moon’s South Pole to carry out experiments. Photo: ISRO

The presence of water and minerals on the moon holds great promise for future aspirations to either settle a colony on the moon or use it as a base for further space exploration.

India’s first mission was complementary to NASA’s exploration of the moon and national leaders want to land an Indian astronaut there by 2022. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s plans for a manned lunar mission, so a successful voyage by Chandrayaan 2 could give those plans a major boost.

Fighting sanctions

The other major success is the GSLV Mark III M1 rocket launcher that served as the three-stage heavy vehicle lifter for the Chandrayaan 2 mission. It has a cryogenic engine that was completely developed by India. This is considered a major triumph for Indian scientists and places it in an exclusive club of nations with the same capability.

The success comes after decades of trouble when the US imposed unilateral sanctions against India for trying to buy a cryogenic engine when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister in the mid-80s. India originally sought to buy the engine from US firms. However, after the deal fell through due to excessive cost, Delhi and the then Soviet Union began plans to build one jointly. However, the US immediately hit back by imposing sanctions on India.

“This is a major victory for India’s indigenous space efforts,” Rajgopalan said. “This is the third major launch using the Mark III, with two earlier in November 2017 and June 2018. This puts India in the same bracket as the US, Russia, China and France,” she said.

While Indian space scientists struggled due to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US, it also forced them to start a program to build it on their own. It also gave a major boost to India’s software capabilities as all the programming for the satellites, probes and launchers was done locally.

“A major advantage of India’s space program are the direct benefits that are tied to India’s development programs,” Rajgopalan said. “Earlier missions have launched satellites that built India’s telecommunications, geo-mapping, weather prediction and remote sensing capabilities. In fact, nearly 98% of the missions have direct benefits.”

The successful launch also opens up major possibilities for India, as many other nations not prepared to start a major space program may want to use its capabilities in space.

India launched nearly 400 satellites at one go in the past, at impressively low cost, and many countries in South America and Europe are keen to launch satellites at more affordable prices.

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