The Chandrayaan-3 Lander Module touched down on the Moon on August 23 at 6.04 pm, after 17 minutes of powered descent.
Soft landings on the lunar surface are notoriously difficult – as the recent Luna-25 mishap showed. With this success, India was catapulted into an elite club of nations including the erstwhile Soviet Union, the United States and China, to have achieved this feat.
India also became the first country to land near the unexplored lunar south pole, believed to be a reservoir of frozen water key to future space missions.
“We are very excited to see this mission succeed. It was not an easy task at all,” S Somanath, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said after the landing.
However, as the world applauds ISRO’s monumental achievement, the space agency is already looking ahead. As Somanath told DW in an interview, Chandrayaan’s success was “only the beginning” and it “will inspire India’s space industry to push its boundaries of innovation”.
Landing done, research ahead
In fact, Chandrayaan-3’s mission objectives are yet to be fully met as well. While it has successfully carried out the trickiest part of the mission – the soft landing – for many, what lies ahead is even more exciting.
Over the next two weeks, or the span of one lunar day, the Pragyan rover will explore the area around the landing site, transmit images and gather crucial scientific data. With two instruments, an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope (LIBS), the six-wheeled rover will conduct chemical and elemental analysis of the lunar soil and rocks. Moreover, instruments in the Lander Module will also be carrying out scientific experiments.
Somanath said that the mission seeks to confirm the presence of ice in the region, something which could “supply oxygen, fuel, and drinking water for future space exploration.”
Not the last of ISRO’s lunar missions
Crucially, this is also not the last of ISRO’s moon missions. As of now, the agency has one more lunar mission on the cards, in collaboration with the Japanese space agency, JAXA. This mission, called LUPEX, or Lunar Polar Exploration, is slated for 2024-25.
LUPEX will explore the permanently shaded polar region of the Moon, adding another layer of complexity to the operation. It will seek to scope the region for the possibility of locating a long-term station in the area – like the International Space Station, but on the Moon.
For the mission, the launch vehicle and rover will be contributed by the Japanese agency, while ISRO will provide the lander.
Also, Chandrayaan-3 is also not likely to be the last of this series of missions. “Of course, the Chandrayaan programme will not end with Chandrayaan-3. We have landed now. But there are many more things to do,” Mylswamy Annadurai, the mission director of Chandrayaan-1, told The Indian Express. “In fact, if Chandrayaan-2 had succeeded in landing, Chandrayaan-3 would have been a sample return mission … That is the next logical step to a lander and rover mission,” he added.
A sample return mission would be a few notches further up in difficulty as it would require a spacecraft not only to land successfully on the Moon, but also to then takeoff from the lunar surface and return back to Earth. China carried out such a mission with Chang’e-5 in 2020.
After successful moonshot, ISRO aims for the Sun
More immediately, however, ISRO is focussing on the early September launch of Aditya-L1, India’s first mission to study the Sun. The spacecraft will be placed in a halo orbit around the Lagrange point 1 (L1) of the Sun-Earth system, which is about 1.5 million km from the Earth.
Lagrange points are positions in space where objects sent there tend to stay put. At these points, the gravitational pull of two large masses (in this case, the Earth and the Sun) precisely equals the centripetal force required for a small object to move with them. This means, spacecraft can remain in one position without requiring too much fuel.
Placing the Aditya-L1 spacecraft in a halo orbit around the L1 point of the Earth-Sun system will mean that it will be able to continuously view the sun, without any disruption. Equipped with seven payloads, it will study the Sun’s corona, solar emissions, solar winds and flares, and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), and will carry out round-the-clock imaging of the star.
The L1 point is already home to the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory Satellite (SOHO), an international collaboration project of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
A trip to the Evening Star
Also on the cards is a trip to Venus, hopefully within the next couple of years. “Currently a Venus mission has been conceived, a project report is made, money identified, an overall plan has been prepared … all this has been done,” Somanath said, speaking at the inauguration of a one-day meet on Venusian Science in Ahmedabad last year.
While the exact details of this mission are yet to be revealed, like previous ISRO missions, the conceived Venus mission will also emphasise on scientific research while also showcasing the space agency’s technical prowess.
Only slightly smaller than Earth, Venus was once believed to be very similar to our home planet. In fact, prior to planetary exploration, many believed that it would be suitable to human exploration. But early missions to Venus in the 1960s discovered that conditions were extremely inhospitable, making exploration an extremely challenging task.
The intense heat and crushing pressure on the planet are further aggravated by the contant volcanic activity. Till date, the longest any spacecraft has survived on the planet’s surface is a little over two hours – a record set by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 probe in 1981.
While ISRO’s first Venus mission is likely to be a somewhat easier orbiter mission, it is yet to be seen whether the agency plans to send a spacecraft to the planet’s surface.
Sending humans to space the ‘ultimate’ aim
The Gaganyaan project envisages demonstration of human spaceflight capability by launching crew of three members to an orbit of 400 km for a three day mission, and bring them back safely to Earth, by landing in Indian sea waters.
ISRO is already working on a modified version of the LVM-3 rocket, used for Chandrayaan-3, to take humans to space. The HLVM-3 (Human-rated LVM-3) will be capable of launching an orbital module to an intended Low Earth Orbit of 400 km. It will incorporate a crucial Crew Escape System (CES).
Before Gaganyaan takes flight, however, Indian astronauts are already set to go to the International Space Station (ISS), sometime next year. Just a couple of months ago, ISRO and the United States’ NASA agreed to send a joint human spaceflight mission to the ISS. This would be the first time in 40 years that Indians would fly to space, though they would ride a NASA spacecraft and not India
That would mean that the first Indian astronauts to go in space in 40 years would ride a NASA spacecraft and not India’s own.