Chandrayaan-2’s journey was riveting and taught us how much can be done despite odds
Isro’s effort to ensure India became only the fourth nation to successfully carry out a controlled landing on the surface of the moon is perhaps our most unifying moment in recent times. The last stages of the six week journey to the lunar surface were a riveting watch. Eventually, Isro lost communication with the lander (Vikram) a mere 2.1 km from the surface. But it would be inaccurate to label this mission a failure. The orbiter, one of three parts of the Chandrayaan-2 stack, continues to function. Over the next few years, this orbiter will keep sending back pictures that will form the basis of subsequent analysis.
The sight of Isro’s chairman K Sivan breaking down after the lander lost contact with the ground stations and Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoling him encapsulated the trials and tribulations of a remarkable institution. Against odds, Isro has made the small global space fraternity sit up and take notice. Run on a tight budget, with a church in a fishing village in Kerala serving as the main office for scientists in the 1960s, Isro has constantly evolved, taking on tougher challenges. Chandrayaan-2, its second moon mission, was more complex than even the Mars Orbiter Mission.
The run-up to Chandrayaan-2 mission was not smooth. A proposed Russian collaboration did not work out. With hindsight, this worked well for Isro as it had to strengthen its capabilities for the mission. The timing of the moon mission is ideal because globally moon landings have begun to evince more interest. Nasa has announced that the US will take greater interest through its Artemis Moon programme next year. An attempt by an Israeli team earlier this year did not meet with success during the landing stage. South Korea is expected to soon join the race to land on the lunar surface.
Given this context, Isro needs to use the knowledge gained from Chandrayaan-2 mission to build on its early success. The launch vehicle, GSLV MkIII-M1 in this case, needs to be enhanced to carry heavier loads. In the original plan for Chandrayaan-2, the lander and rover (Pragyan) would have functioned for one lunar day, equivalent to14 earth days. Isro now needs to improve on this count by using radioactive heater units to last through a lunar night, something the Chinese have successfully done. As PM Modi said while encouraging the scientists, “We will need to cover more ground in the times to come.”