‘IN ROCKET SCI­ENCE, THERE ARE AL­WAYS UN­KNOWN UN­KNOWNS

ISRO chair­per­son DR KAILASAVAD­I­VOO SI­VAN spoke to Group Ed­i­to­rial Direc­tor RAJ CHEN­GAPPA on the Chan­drayaan 2 mis­sion and whether it had im­pacted the space depart­ment’s fu­ture plans. Ex­cerpts:

India Today - - COVER STORY -

Q. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of find­ing the lan­der on the moon’s sur­face?

A. There is no sig­nif­i­cance, we are un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with it. We have lo­cated it, that’s all.

Q. What do the pho­to­graphs from the or­biter show?

A. It has not soft landed. All we know is that there is an ob­ject on the moon’s sur­face that was not there when we at­tempted to land Vikram. We know it’s not a new crater; so, by de­duc­tion, we know it is Vikram. We can­not say any­thing be­yond that.

Q. Have you de­ter­mined why com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Vikram failed?

A. The anal­y­sis is go­ing on, I can’t say any­thing more now.

Q. Was it a propul­sion or con­trol prob­lem?

A. We are analysing the data and we are still try­ing to un­der­stand what the prob­lem is. Q. Did you an­tic­i­pate there would be a prob­lem when you ear­lier talked of the de­scent being ‘15 min­utes of ter­ror’? A. These are new tech­nolo­gies that we have de­vel­oped and we were demon­strat­ing them for the first time in flight. Hence, the 15 min­utes of ter­ror.

Q. When did you sense that some­thing was wrong? A. Once we lost com­mu­ni­ca­tion, we knew.

Q. What did you tell the prime min­is­ter when it hap­pened? A. I told him what hap­pened. He said, don’t worry, don’t get dis­heart­ened.

Q. Next day you broke down when he was leav­ing and he hugged you. How did it make you feel?

A. Apart from being our na­tional leader, he is our boss too (the space depart­ment comes un­der the PMO). I be­came emo­tional be­cause we could not meet his ex­pec­ta­tions. He im­me­di­ately con­soled me and I felt re­lieved. The prime min­is­ter of the coun­try hug­ging you gives you a feel­ing of in­spi­ra­tion. It’s given me the men­tal strength for the tasks that lie ahead.

Q. De­spite the set­back, you claimed that the Chan­drayaan 2 mis­sion was 95 per cent suc­cess­ful...

A. The mis­sion had two main ob­jec­tives. One is the sci­ence mis­sion we are con­duct­ing us­ing the in­stru­ments on the or­biter. The other is the tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion for the land­ing. On the sci­ence front, ev­ery­thing has gone well. We have a pow­er­ful dual band syn­thetic aper­ture in the or­biter where we can pen­e­trate 10 me­tres below the sur­face. It will give us won­der­ful in­for­ma­tion about wa­ter, min­er­als and other things present on the lu­nar sur­face and below. We also have high res­o­lu­tion cam­eras and ad­vanced in­fra-red imag­ing spec­trom­e­ters that will en­able us to col­lect fan­tas­tic data for sci­ence. The other thing is that the or­biter’s

life, which was de­signed for one year, will now go on for seven and a half years. We have done this by op­ti­mis­ing our fuel strat­egy af­ter the launch ve­hi­cle gave us ex­tra per­for­mance. So in the sci­ence part we have got more than we wanted.

Q. What about the tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion part?

A. Well, there are lots of new tech­nolo­gies we have de­vel­oped. Like throt­tle-able en­gine, sen­sors and nav­i­ga­tion and guid­ance sys­tems. Of the 15 min­utes in the de­scent phase, ex­cept for the last two min­utes, we demon­strated all the tech­nolo­gies. It’s true we couldn’t achieve the soft land­ing, but all con­sid­ered, this mis­sion has been more than 95 per cent suc­cess­ful.

Q. What next? Will there be a Chan­drayaan 3?

A. That we will de­cide only af­ter the out­come of our anal­y­sis. We have to find out what re­ally hap­pened, only then can we talk about the fu­ture.

Q. Will this slow down ISRO’s space ex­plo­ration pro­grammes, in­clud­ing the manned mis­sion?

A. Ev­ery­thing will go on as planned. Not only plan­e­tary ex­plo­ration, but also Ga­ganyaan (manned mis­sion to space) apart from newer de­vel­op­ments. There is a lot more chal­leng­ing work to do and more com­plex mis­sions. So rather than worry about what hap­pened in the past, we are de­ter­mined to do the work we have set out to do.

Q. What lessons have you learnt from this set­back?

A. We al­ways say space is un­for­giv­ing. Also, in rocket sci­ence, there are al­ways un­known un­knowns. This set­back was one among them. It’s part of space pro­grammes—you can have 12 suc­cess­ful launches and then one may fail. In space, till the ob­jec­tive is achieved, whether we are us­ing a new sys­tem or an old one, we can­not say it is done.

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