A Glorious Failure; all is not lost for the Chandrayaan2

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

All is well even if it does not sometimes end well. India is now on the Moon in spite of all the predicaments. Nothing succeeds like success partial or full. Chandrayaan 2 is successful in sending India’s spacecraft to the South Pole of the moon which no other country has yet attempted.

As the ISRO successfully launched Chandrayaan-2, India’s second mission to the Moon on Monday, there was jubilation across India, and the euphoria was definitely more in Assam. Amongst those responsible for Chandrayaan-2 successful launch, Assam’s J.N. Goswami’s role is definitely worth mentioning. He is the chairman of the advisory board for Chandrayaan-2 mission. Goswami was the principal scientist of India’s first moon mission Chandrayaan 1. The mission had succeeded in tracing water molecules on the moon for the first time ever.

Those who think that the mission is a failure should not forget that India’s failure is a glorious failure in invading the moon. Chandrayaan-2 mission was a highly complex mission, which represented a significant technological leap compared to the previous missions of ISRO, which brought together an Orbiter, Lander and Rover to explore the unexplored south pole of the Moon. Since the launch of Chandrayaan-2 on July 22, 2019, not only India, but the whole world watched its progress from one phase to the next with great expectations and excitement. This was a unique mission which aimed at studying not just one area of the Moon but all the areas combining the exosphere, the surface as well as the sub-surface of the moon in a single mission.

The Orbiter has already been placed in its intended orbit around the Moon and shall enrich our understanding of the moon’s evolution and mapping of the minerals and water molecules in the Polar Regions, using its eight state-of-the-art scientific instruments. The Orbiter camera is the highest resolution camera (0.3m) in any lunar mission so far and shall provide high resolution images which will be immensely useful to the global scientific community. The precise launch and mission management has ensured a long life of almost 7 years instead of the planned one year. The Vikram Lander followed the planned descent trajectory from its orbit of 35 km to just below 2 km above the surface. All the systems and sensors of the Lander functioned excellently until this point and proved many new technologies such as variable thrust propulsion technology used in the Lander. The success criteria was defined for each and every phase of the mission and till date 90 to 95% of the mission objectives have been accomplished and will continue contribute to Lunar science, notwithstanding the loss of communication with the Lander.

According to the ISRO the Moon provides the best linkage to Earth’s early history. It offers an undisturbed historical record of the inner Solar system environment. Though there are a few mature models, the origin of Moon still needs further explanations. Extensive mapping of lunar surface to study variations in lunar surface composition is essential to trace back the origin and evolution of the Moon. Evidence for water molecules discovered by Chandrayaan-1, requires further studies on the extent of water molecule distribution on the surface, below the surface and in the tenuous lunar exosphere to address the origin of water on Moon. The lunar South Pole is especially interesting because of the lunar surface area that remains shadowed, is much larger than that at the North Pole. There is a possibility of the presence of water in permanently shadowed areas around it. In addition, South Pole region has craters that are cold traps and contain a fossil record of the early Solar System. Chandrayaan-2 was expected to soft land the lander -Vikram and rover – Pragyan in a high plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70° south. Vikram and the rover were scheduled to land on the near side of the Moon, in the south polar region. The moment of Vikram lander descent was an anxious moment for scientists at the ISRO and millions in India and abroad and quite unexpectedly the Lander of Chandrayan-2 lost contact with ISRO’s ground control. Normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Silence descended but all is not lost. National celebration was halted but it cannot set back India’s growing space ambitions. These kinds of failures are not uncommon.

Failure is the success in the landing attempts for many countries in the past. Last April, Israel attempted to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, only to fail in the final moments. The Washington Post itself wrote: “Of the 38 soft-landing attempts made on the moon, only half have succeeded.” The success of Chandrayaan-2 could make India the fourth nation to land on the moon after the United States Russia and China. The mission would not be considered a failure, because Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter, has a mission life of a year, and fifty percent of the mission is already successful and functional. The orbiter carries eight scientific experiments for mapping the lunar surface and studying the outer atmosphere of the moon. Proper soft landing is the most crucial part of the exercise. So there is no reason to think all is lost.

Launched in July, Chandrayaan-2 had successfully completed Earth and moon orbits and was set to execute a controlled landing on the lunar south pole, a previously unexplored region. This year China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a first and has plans to land another craft in the coming months. India too came very close but we need to cover more ground. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly said, “Our determination to touch the moon has become even stronger.” This is no less important.

It was a challenging project. Let us imagine a spaceship crossing the space at a speed ten times faster than an airplane, and almost stopping to land softly on the Earth – all in minutes and, more importantly, without any human intervention. So anything can happen and that nothing happened is a miracle. Only thing is that the miracle did not happen this time. In the Guardian, Mathieu Weiss, a representative in India for France’s space agency CNES, is very correct in  saying, “India is going where probably the future settlements of humans will be in 20 years, in 50 years, 100 years.” A slight deviation from expected trajectory cannot make a wonderful mission meaningless. It is a failure but a very glorious failure. The New York Times lauded India’s “engineering prowess and decades of space development have combined with its global ambitions” There is a huge truth in this meaningful applause.

ISRO’s success is national success and its failure too is our tears. If this project is politicised and parties took mileage out of it, it would be painful and a disgrace for the nation. The national jubilation was akin to America sending First Man to the moon. Our Prime Minister sat all along with the scientists and the students to watch the historic moment. It is a matter of pride and hope that Vikram lander has been located by the Orbiter of Chandrayaan-2, although no communication with it is yet to be established. We hope against hopes and prepare ourselves for the worst.

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